'In a perverse, masochistic sort of way, it is exciting!': Rollercoaster of emotions expected on tense final-day

Leicester Lions and Bishop's Stortford are two of the sides embroiled in the fight to survive on the final day
©Vikki Lince

Two of Bishop's Stortford, Leicester Lions, Taunton Titans and Cinderford will be relegated from National One while in National Two, there is a title to be won and survival on the line.

We’ve seen it many times before.

When a relegation battle or a title race goes to the final day, images of supporters glued to their radios or mobile phones always speak a thousand words.

Desperately trying to find out if something has happened at another game. The emotion etched on their faces.

And while there will be ecstasy and anguish this weekend when another absorbing National League Rugby campaign reaches its crescendo, there seems to be a broad sense of 'controlling the controllables' rather than worrying about what is unfolding elsewhere.

"You can see why it is in our hands," says Cinderford Director of Rugby Paul Morris. "There is a clear mathematical solution to us staying up so we know what is ahead of us."

And focusing on oneself may be the decisive factor in National One and National Two on Saturday.

Morris is very much embroiled in the fight to avoid relegation from National One. His Cinderford side are one of four clubs vying for safety and the general feeling is that the quartet are still masters of their own destiny.

Seeing as we began with the Forest of Dean outfit, let’s stick with them. As it stands, Cinderford sit bottom of the table and are four points from safety so if they are to stay up, victory on the final day is a non-negotiable.

The reason why Morris says it is in Cinderford’s hands is because they host one of their relegation rivals; Bishop’s Stortford.

Stortford (11th) are three points clear of the trapdoor but if Cinderford were to record a bonus-point victory and deny Marcus Cattell’s side any points, Morris’ men would leapfrog them in the standings. Whether that would be enough to survive, only time will tell.

Stortford’s spurt of form since the middle of February - four wins from their last seven games - has left their fate firmly in their own hands, with the Hertfordshire club requiring two points from their visit to Dockham Road to confirm safety.

“In a perverse, masochistic sort of way, it is very exciting,” Morris chuckles. “I think the two divisions above could do with a bit of jeopardy! 

“It is quite a unique situation. It is going to be two from four. We have that last place but we have the greatest of respect for the opponent we are playing on Saturday. There is a lot to like about Bishop’s Stortford and the way they play their rugby but we know what we have got to do.”

That feeling of ‘concentrating on the task at hand’ very much applies to Leicester Lions (12th). Promoted to National One for the first time in the club’s history last term, Gareth Collins' men have felt the full force of the third tier but are in a position to book their ticket for a second season at this level.

The Midlands club sit two points above the dreaded dotted line and know that three points or more from their visit to 10th-placed Sale FC will guarantee their place in National One. 

“We are certainly not relying on others,” Collins says. “I think mathematically, we need three points. You can’t really plan for three very easily! It makes it nice and simple for us though as we don’t have to chase bonus points. We just have to win the game but we appreciate that is a big challenge.”

Anything less than the magic number three for Leicester Lions will open the door for Taunton Titans (13th). 

Perhaps regular score updates from elsewhere is most applicable to Tony Yapp’s side - who are currently two points from safety - because regardless of the outcome of their clash away at Blackheath (7th), they will need Leicester Lions and/or Bishop’s Stortford to slip up if they are to stay up.

Yapp insists asking about matters away from their own fixture cannot dominate his or Taunton’s thinking, with the Titans essentially needing to win to give themselves a shot at a third consecutive season in National One.

“If we start focusing on Bishop’s Stortford, Cinderford or Leicester Lions and we lose track of what is happening, we will come unstuck,” Yapp reiterates. “We still have to win to stay up.

“Although I am sure people will be whispering in my ear what the scores are elsewhere, I won’t be taking too much notice!"

With all four clubs, it is very difficult to predict which way this fascinating battle for survival will go. Maybe that is why they are in the position they are in because collectively, they have experienced some excellent highs and some extreme lows throughout the campaign.

Not since 2018/19 when the bottom two of Loughborough Students and Esher went down [alongside Caldy as three teams suffered relegation that season] have we seen a higher number of points accumulated by the sides in the final two positions.


  • Bishop's Stortford require two points to survive
  • Leicester Lions require three points to survive
  • Taunton Titans need three or more points to have any chance of staying up
  • Cinderford must win to have any chance of staying up

All three of Morris, Collins and Yapp are in agreement about how competitive the third tier continues to be and that might be best encapsulated by Leicester Lions.

On their National One debut, they stunned the league by defeating Sale FC 23-19 before beating second-placed Rams RFC and Plymouth Albion (4th) later on in the term.

Whilst the Lions have experienced a winless drought or two during the season, they have also picked up 10 victories from their 25 matches - the same amount as eighth-placed Richmond.

“It has been a bit of a rollercoaster, to be honest! Collins says. “We have had a number of ups and equally, we have had a number of downs. Our biggest losses have been to those sides at the top of the league but we have taken a couple of scalps from those sides as well. We've also been to places like Blackheath and Richmond for the first time and won.

“We’ve won the same amount of games as some of the sides who are pushing for that top half of the league which is encouraging but we lost so many games by eight, nine, 10 points in the first half of the season and they kind of accumulated and left us where we are.”

Home has been where the heart is for the Lions with seven of their 10 wins coming at Westleigh Park, and three successive maximums on their own patch has kept their heads above water.

For Bishop’s Stortford - who sit outside the danger zone along with Leicester Lions -  any major fears of a first relegation in six seasons have been alleviated over the last two months.

Heading into Round 19, they were experiencing their worst run of form of the campaign. No win in six and zero points for three consecutive matches left Stortford searching for answers but a superb 22-14 success away at Sedgley Park turned out to be a catalyst.

Sixteen points from their last six games - including three victories - has left them feeling reinvigorated with prop Toby Hill telling the club’s social media channels this week: “We’re fully focused on going into the last week of the season, knowing what we need to do. It will be great to see so many Blues fans in Gloucestershire on Saturday for the final push.”

The form of Stortford feels encouraging but of the quartet scrapping for survival, the momentum might be with Taunton.

After confirming their safety on the final day of last season, the Titans are once again in a similar situation but this didn’t look likely in Round 23.

With the clock ticking towards the 77th minute, the Somerset outfit were trailing 20-12 at home to Darlington Mowden Park, staring down the barrel of a fifth straight defeat.

However, the “fuse was lit” on their survival hopes as last-gasp tries from Oscar Stewart and Vaea Taione sealed a dramatic come-from-behind triumph.

“I have always been confident in the ability of the boys and have always had confidence we can stay up,” Yapp admits. “That has never wavered at all but if I am brutally honest, with five minutes to go against Darlington, being eight points behind, playing into a strong wind in a low-scoring game, it was looking like it was going to be very difficult! 

“But we scored a great try with a minute to go, we drop-kicked the conversion off the touchline to give ourselves the opportunity and from the kick-off, we’ve gone through a lot of phases, a lot of penalty advantages and we eventually got ourselves over for the bonus point win. Yes, it did light the fuse and I suppose if you look at it, then maybe it is meant to be?!"

Taunton have built on that victory with impressive back-to-back bonus-point wins away at Sale FC and crucially at home against Cinderford last time out.

The Titans recorded a 27-21 success but Cinderford stormed back to claim two late and precious bonus points which meant they lived to fight another day.

“I thought for the first half hour at Taunton, we were very dominant,” Morris, who will step down as the club's Director of Rugby at the end of the season, reflects. “We fell off a cliff for half an hour - approaching half-time and just after half-time - and the tries we conceded were completely down to us.

“We were very hard and honest in our analysis of that game but we worked very hard to get those five tries last time out and it leaves us where we are.”

Eight points from their last three games - including a sensational 29-28 home win against Rosslyn Park (3rd) - means Cinderford have taken it to the wire.

Going into the weekend, Morris, Collins and Yapp all admit they are excited rather than fraught with nerves. You can imagine that sense of fervour has also filtered into the Bishop’s Stortford camp.

The jeopardy which comes with National League Rugby has been on display time and time again over the last few seasons and as a neutral, the drama is what makes these divisions so gripping.

But that is heightened by the emotions of the clubs, players, and supporters involved and on Saturday, only two will experience celebration and relief while for the others, it will unfortunately be anguish and despair.

National Two - Final Day Permutations

That contrast of emotions will also apply to level four with a title race and a survival battle still ongoing.

In National Two North, Rotherham Titans (1st) - who went top last weekend following their hard-fought 36-14 success over Sheffield Tigers (7th) - know victory on the final day will earn them promotion to National One.

Rivals Leeds Tykes (2nd) - who are two points behind Rotherham - host third-placed Sheffield at Headingley while the Titans go to Billingham (12th), who are in a fight of their own.

The North-East club require one point against Rotherham to avoid relegation from National Two North. Failure to do this could open the door for 13th-placed Hull Ionians to secure safety.

The I's must beat bottom of the table and already relegated Huddersfield to stand any chance of evading the drop.

However, Hull Ionians could also survive even if they finish in 13th place.

Following the demise of Jersey Reds from the Championship, this had a consequential impact on relegation from National Two.

  • The clubs in 14th position in the three National Two leagues are relegated to level 5. In this case, Huddersfield (Nat2n), North Walsham (Nat2e) and Dudley Kingwinsford (Nat2w) are already down.
  • The playing records of the three clubs in 13th position in the three National Two leagues are compared. The club with the best playing record remains in National Two and the other two are relegated to level five.

With Newport (Salop) already down from National Two West, it is currently between Hull Ionians and National Two East's Wimbledon for the final safety spot.

As it stands, Wimbledon have a better playing record (43 points) than Hull Ionians (39 points).

Regardless of what Hull Ionians do in National Two North, Wimbledon require two points from their final day fixture away at third-placed Dorking to guarantee survival.

Final Day Fixtures 

National One: Birmingham Moseley (5th) v Rams (2nd), Blackheath (7th) v Taunton (13th), Cinderford (14th) v Bishop's Stortford (11th), Darlington Mowden Park (6th) v Chinnor (1st), Plymouth Albion (4th) v Rosslyn Park (3rd), Richmond (7th) v Sedgley Park (9th), Sale FC (10th) v Leicester Lions (12th).

National Two North: Billingham (12th) v Rotherham (1st), Hull (8th) v Otley (9th), Hull Ionians (13th) v Huddersfield (14th), Leeds Tykes (2nd) v Sheffield (3rd), Preston Grasshoppers (11th) v Tynedale (6th), Sheffield Tigers (7th) v Fylde (5th), Wharfedale (4th) v Lymm (10th).

National Two East: Barnes (2nd) v Esher (1st), Canterbury (7th) v Sevenoaks (11th), Dorking (3rd) v Wimbledon (13th), Guernsey (10th) v Henley (4th), Old Albanian (8th) v Bury St Edmunds (6th), Westcombe Park (9th) v Tonbridge Juddians (5th), Worthing (12th) v North Walsham (14th).

National Two West: Bournville (12th) v Hinckley (7th), Dings (1st) v Camborne (6th), Exeter University (5th) v Chester (10th), Luctonians (2nd) v Dudley Kingswinford (14th), Loughborough Students (8th) v Hornets (11th), Newport (Salop) (13th) v Clifton (3rd), Old Redcliffians (4th) v Redruth (9th).

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