Luke Arscott Exclusive: It is surreal to find ourselves here - It is probably one of the biggest games in the club’s history

National Two West's Dings Crusaders can claim promotion to National One with victory over Redruth on Saturday
©Baz Johnson

The manner of the defeat but what it also meant for the bigger picture was something Dings Crusaders hadn't envisaged. 

Back in Round Five against Hinckley, Stean Williams and Luke Arscott's side were left scratching their heads after seeing a healthy 26-0 advantage dissolve in front of their eyes.

Tries from Matt Bennett, Harry Hone (2) and Ed Sheldon were cancelled out by 29 unanswered points which condemned Dings to their third defeat in the opening month of the campaign.

"We really put ourselves on the back foot," is how Arscott describes the club's start to the season and it is hard to argue with him. After finishing second in 2022/23, Dings were aiming to build on those foundations but a patchy beginning to the term left them eighth in the table.

But that was September. Since then, the Crusaders haven't been on the losing side. Instead, they have stitched together a stunning unbeaten run of 19 games to leave themselves on the cusp of history. 

The National Two West league leaders are just one victory away from a first-ever promotion to National One and whilst there is still work to do, their defiance and consistency has left them on the brink.

For a large portion of this campaign, they have been battling with Luctonians for the title but when the pair met back in November, Dings were 13 points behind the Herefordshire outfit who were sitting top of the pile.

However, the relentlessness of the Crusaders - combined with Lucs hitting some bumps in the road - means Dings now hold a seven-point advantage at the summit with two games remaining. 

"To be honest, it is still a little bit surreal that we find ourselves in this position after the start to the season we had," Arscott says. "No one at the club expected to be in this position with how Luctonians were going. They were so strong, being very consistent with picking up win, after win and then over the last five weeks, there has been this swing.

"I think you have got to give the boys a lot of credit for that. I think we hadn’t written off the season [after the first five games] but obviously we weren’t where we wanted to be.

"The goal was never necessarily promotion [at the start of the season]. It was to improve on what we did last year. I know that might sound a little bit contradicting but I think we ended up on 104 points last year so if we get more points than that, then that is an improvement."

And Dings are on course to beat last year's tally with home fixtures against Redruth (10th) and Camborne (6th) to conclude the term.

Even if they match their total of 2023/24, they will still be crowned champions but at the turn of the year, that scenario wouldn't have dominated their thinking.

As Arscott touches on, after a brilliant first half of the season, Luctonians were the team out in front but over the last five games, their promotion bid has disintegrated with Ryan Watkins' charges falling to three defeats in that period.

Last season, Dings and Luctonians finished in the top four so the duo may have been seen as early favourites for promotion but the turnaround in fortunes for Arscott’s squad has left them in the driving seat.

One of the key elements behind the Crusaders’ title tilt has been their defensive record. Other than Chinnor in National One, the Bristol club have conceded the least amount of points (375) across levels three and four - an average of just 15.6 points per game.

“I always say defence is all about attitude," adds Arscott. "Maybe at the start of the season, from my perspective, the messages we wanted to get over to the players weren't clear enough.

"We have tried to build a culture where the boys all play for each other and the attitude has been pretty faultless from the whole squad, not just the first team. We have got a great squad of players. We have had a lot of [training] sessions where we have been able to go two teams against each other with really great competitiveness so I think that has really benefitted our focus and the way we have gone in the league.

"Since I joined the club seven years ago, we have never finished lower than the previous season so being in this position with two to go, we couldn't have asked for anything more."

Arscott's journey with Dings has coincided with their resurgence both on and off the field. Following a career which included spells at Bristol, Bath and Exeter Chiefs, the former Premiership star stepped into the Crusaders environment in 2016/17 as a player/assistant coach with the club at level five.

A season later, he had taken over as head coach and Arscott guided the side to the South West Premier title in the same year that Dings relocated from Lockleaze to their current home of Shaftesbury Park, a multi-million-pound facility in the village of Frenchay.

"For the club to move forward, the move had to be made," Arscott admits. "When we were at Lockleaze, there wasn’t a junior set-up or anything like that. You now go up to the club on a Sunday morning, there is a thriving mini + junior section. It is building for the future and we have fantastic facilities which attract people to want to play rugby here.

"We haven’t had a consistent group of youngsters coming through the club but hopefully over the next year or two, we will see the benefit of having that junior set-up that has been in place for a good few years now."

Since their return to National League Rugby six years ago, Dings have steadily climbed the ladder and they have done so with a core group of players behind them.

The Crusaders' first game back at level four was, coincidentally, against this Saturday's opponents Redruth and seven players from that day have featured this season, including ever-presents Matt Smith and Joe Hawkesby as well as the returning Jake Holcombe.

Arscott, himself, started at full-back while the club's current Director of Rugby, Stean Williams, made 23 appearances in that campaign.

This term, some of the club's recruitment from the Championship and National One  - as well as having access to loan players (including James Halliwell and Ciaran Donoghue from Bristol Bears and Bath respectively) - has clearly had a positive impact on the squad, but there is still a nucleus of individuals who have helped Dings get to this point.

"I was looking at the team that we had last weekend," Arscott says, reflecting on Dings' 45-13 victory over Newport (Salop). "You mention Joe but Charlie Taylor, Matt Smith, Jake Holcombe, these guys were with the club when we got promoted from South West Premier. To be able to look at those guys and see the journey they have been on with the club over the last five or six years, how they have been able to consistently be picked and put in performances week in, week out is a real credit to them.

"It is massive having that core group and there is no one that epitomises the club more than Stean. No one puts in more effort and spends more time on matchdays and during the week than he does. He has got to take a lot of the credit for how the boys have gone this year and where the club is as a whole."

With both Dings and Luctonians collecting maximum points in Round 24, it means the Crusaders can win the league this weekend at home against Redruth. Nineteen games unbeaten and 14 victories from their last 15 matches at Shaftesbury Park indicates that momentum is with the table-toppers.

The party may not happen on Saturday and if National League Rugby decides to be its usual, unpredictable best, there could still be one more seismic twist in the title race but Dings will be hoping for a dream ending to what has been a thrilling season.

"I have been lucky enough to be involved with the club for one promotion so to have two in the space of six years would be very special," Arscott says. "Going into the weekend, it is probably one of the biggest games in the club’s history, if not the biggest, with the chance to seal it at home.

"The boys quite rightly said on Tuesday night that there is nothing won yet. You can chuck as many clichés out as you like but they are clichés for a reason! We know that you still have to go out and perform at the weekend because Redruth are a strong side. We know the job is far from finished yet but we have the opportunity to finish it on Saturday."

Round 25 -  Key Headlines

Dings Crusaders may not be the only team spraying champagne on Saturday evening as National One leaders Chinnor and National Two East table-toppers Esher can both claim promotion in Round 25.

National One

Beginning with Chinnor, a win this weekend away at fifth-placed Birmingham Moseley will see Nick Easter's side promoted from National One and crowned champions.

The Black and Whites require just three points from their final two matches to earn their place in the Championship next season.

At the other end of the division, the battle for survival is set to intensify even further with the bottom two - Taunton Titans (14th) and Cinderford (13th) - going head to head at Vertias Park.

Rivals Leicester Lions (12th) entertain Darlington Mowden Park (6th) and Bishop's Stortford (11th) host Sale FC (10th) with the bottom four clubs separated by just four points.

Other Fixtures: Rams (2nd) v Richmond (7th), Rosslyn Park (3rd) v Blackheath (8th), Sedgley Park (9th) v Plymouth Albion (4th).

National Two East

Esher can win promotion back to National One if they collect a bonus-point win over second-placed Dorking this weekend.

Worthing Raiders (12th) can confirm their safety in National Two East if they avoid defeat against rivals Wimbledon (13th) on Saturday.

Wimbledon cannot be relegated this weekend due to the format of relegation for 2023/24.

Other Fixtures: Bury St Edmunds (6th) v Guernsey Raiders (10th), Henley (5th) v Canterbury (7th), Old Albanian (11th) v North Walsham (14th), Sevenoaks (8th) v Westcombe Park (9th), Tonbridge Juddians (4th) v Barnes (3rd).

National Two West

Dudley Kingswinford (14th) will be relegated if they fail to pick up a point at home to Old Redcliffians (5th).

Newport (Salop) will also be relegated if they fail to beat Camborne (6th) away from home.

Other Fixtures: Chester (9th) v Loughborough Students (8th), Clifton (3rd) v Exeter University (4th), Hinckley (7th) v Luctonians (2nd), Hornets (11th) v Bournville (12th).

National Two North

There is a scenario where Leeds Tykes could win promotion from National Two North this weekend.

The league leaders need to beat Fylde (5th) away from home and would also require title rivals Rotherham Titans (2nd) to pick up one point or less from their fixture against Preston Grasshoppers (10th) for this to be a possibility.

At the bottom, Billingham (12th) - who travel to Lymm (11th) - can confirm their safety if they can better Hull Ionians' (13th) result against Otley (9th).

Hull Ionians cannot be relegated this weekend due to the format of relegation for 2023/24.

Other Fixtures: Sheffield (3rd) v Hull (8th), Tynedale (6th) v Sheffield Tigers (7th), Wharfedale (4th) v Huddersfield (14th).

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