The top two sides in National Two South collide on the opening weekend of 2019 when Rams RFC take on Henley Hawks at Dry Leas on Saturday.
Twelve consecutive victories has left the Rams 11 points clear at the summit, while Henley moved back into second place after beating Barnes just before Christmas.
Both sides will be aiming to strengthen their own promotion bids while Canterbury (3rd) and Taunton Titans (4th) will have one eye on the top of the table clash when they face Old Redcliffians and Clifton, respectively, this weekend.
Down at the bottom, London Irish Wild Geese and Birmingham & Solihull are 15 points from safety as things stand and both face tricky home fixtures against Tonbridge Juddians and Dings Crusaders.
Fellow relegation rivals, Guernsey, are searching for their first win since October and in Round 17, they welcome Bury St Edmunds to Footes Lane.
Elsewhere in National Two South, Old Albanian entertain Barnes and Worthing Raiders visit Redruth.
Henley Hawks v Rams RFC
Who said January can’t be lively? What a way to begin 2019 in National Two South as the top two sides in the division clash when Henley Hawks host Rams RFC. As things stand, it is the Rams who lead the way by 11 points and they are completely in control of the title race after a remarkable run of 12 straight victories.
Rugby is back and we have a bumper preview ahead of tomorrow's fixtures. Luke Allen, Matt Williams, @mattclarke08, Andy Boyle and @MattGoode13 do the talking. Thanks to @grumpygramp15 for the photo https://t.co/AbUUGTr3rp pic.twitter.com/Y8N0LxyCql— Jack Johnson (@OxMailJackJ) January 4, 2019
Seb Reynolds’ side have tasted defeat on just one occasion this season, but their trip to Dry Leas this weekend is arguably their toughest challenge to date. Henley come into this fixture having won 11 of their last 12 games and the second-placed side are now three points ahead of their fellow promotion candidates. A home triumph on Saturday would change the dynamic at the top, but if the visitors can continue their scintillating form, it would be a significant step towards the league title for Rams RFC.
Canterbury v Old Redcliffians
Just before the Christmas break, a run of eight consecutive victories came to an end for Canterbury as they were defeated by near neighbours Tonbridge Juddians. Their loss at the Slade meant Andy Pratt’s side fell out of the top two places, but they are only three points off Henley Hawks – who take on league leaders Rams RFC this weekend.
Canterbury will be hoping the table toppers can hamper Henley’s promotion ambitions, but the City Men must first do their own job against a rejuvenated Old Redcliffians outfit. The men from Scotland Lane had been yo-yoing between the bottom three and the safety positions, but Old Reds were able to steady the ship and pull away from trouble in December. Three successive wins means they are now 11 points clear of the relegation places and the Bristol-based side will head to Kent in Round 17 full of confidence. Will Old Reds be able to continue their best ever run of form in this division?
Clifton v Taunton Titans
Everyone associated with Taunton Titans would have had a smile on their face over the festive period. Obviously, Christmas is a time for celebration, but in terms of rugby, the Titans had a December to remember. Four straight wins for Tony Yapp’s side leaves them just five points off second-placed Hinckley and this could be the year Taunton are able to make the next step and finish in the top two.
However, there is still a long way to go in the campaign and up next for the Titans is a trip to a Clifton side that also ended 2018 on a positive note. After successive losses against Rams RFC and Tonbridge Juddians, Matt Salter’s side claimed the Bristol bragging rights against Dings Crusaders as they entered the Christmas break with a welcome win. The Lavender and Blacks currently occupy 11th spot in the table and they will be keen to push on in 2019, starting with a victory over promotion chasing Taunton.
London Irish Wild Geese v Tonbridge Juddians
Other than league leaders Rams RFC, Tonbridge Juddians are the form side in National Two South at the turn of the year. Their latest victory against local rivals Canterbury extended their unbeaten run to eight matches as Peter Dankert’s side continue to impress at this level.
N2S R17 sees TJs travel to LIWG this Saturday for a 3pm KO. TJs are on a roll at present and they will be looking to keep that going as 2019 begins. No easy games at this level though and LIWG at home is always a tough one #COUTJs— TJRFC (@TJRFC) January 3, 2019
Thoughts of a promotion push may well have crept into the minds of TJs as they are only nine points behind second-placed Henley Hawks and they will also be firm favourites to maintain their excellent form when they take the trip to London Irish Wild Geese this weekend. As things stand, the Wild Geese are the division’s bottom club and they are 15 points from safety after just one win from their last six games. Over the last couple of seasons, the men from Hazelwood have been able to dig themselves out of trouble and a fourth victory of the campaign on Saturday could spark another revival.
Old Albanian v Barnes
There was to be no early Christmas joy for Old Albanian. A last-gasp kick from Bury St Edmunds’ Cameron Ritchie snatched the victory away from Gavin Hogg on his return to Suffolk as OAs narrowly came up short. Just a single victory over London Irish Wild Geese in December means any hopes of an immediate return to National One now look unlikely for OAs, but the sixth-placed will be keen for a stronger second half of the campaign.
Their first game of the New Year is a home fixture with Barnes, who have had a very mixed return to this level. On the club website, they rated their first 16 games as 5/10 and in truth, it is probably a fair reflection. After beating London Irish Wild Geese on the opening day, Barnes then lost five matches in a row, won five on the spin and currently, they are on another five-game losing streak. Barnes sit 12th as things stand so they will be keen to halt their inconsistencies as soon as possible.
Redruth v Worthing Raiders
Worthing Raiders had a very pleasing end to 2018. Successive victories over Dings Crusaders and Guernsey, as well as a draw with Tonbridge Juddians, lifted Jody Levett’s men up to seventh place and now they will be aiming to continue their good form when they travel to Redruth in Round 17.
The men from Roundstone Lane face three sides below them in the table to begin 2019, but they will be fully aware of what Redruth are capable of. Pale Nonu’s side have really struggled over the last couple of months and just one win in nine matches has seen them fall to ninth place in the division. The Reds are going through one of their most difficult spells for a few years, but they have the quality in their ranks to turn things around and a win at The Rec on Saturday would be the ideal way to kick off the New Year.
Guernsey v Bury St Edmunds
You see it across a number of sports. When a new coach comes in, more often than not, they have a positive effect. To use football as an example, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has turned the fortunes of Manchester United around and Nick Wakley has done something similar with Bury St Edmunds in National Two South. Nineteen points from his first six games has taken the
Please see below the BSE 1st (Wolfpack) Squad v Guernsey Raidershttps://t.co/WMt139X3yE— Bury St Edmunds Rugby (@BSERugby) January 4, 2019
Bury will fancy their chances of adding to their recent good form when they travel to a Guernsey side who currently sit in the bottom three. Jordan Reynolds’ men are 11 points from safety and they begin 2019 at Footes Lane having lost their last 10 games. The Raiders are without a win since the opening weekend of October, but they still have every chance of escaping the drop. A home victory on Saturday is certainly not a necessity, but it would provide a much-needed morale booster for the Channel Island side.
Birmingham and Solihull v Dings Crusaders
Dings Crusaders’ loss to Clifton would have stung heading into the Christmas break. A defeat to their local rivals means Luke Arscott’s men occupy 10th spot in the table as 2019 gets underway. However, if you look at the bigger picture, Dings should be very content with their efforts in the first half of the campaign since gaining promotion and they will want to build on the platform they have created in the final 14 games of the season.
First on their agenda is a trip to Birmingham and Solihull and the hosts find themselves in the relegation places as things stand. Pete Glackin’s side are 15 points from safety and they will be eager to improve on their form as they try and pull off a remarkable revival. The Bees are back at Portway this weekend and they have only managed to pick up one win on their own turf all season so a home victory might provide the shot in the arm the Midlands club need to spark a resurgence.