National Two North and South Season Preview 2017/18

Macclesfield will be hoping to emulate their success of two seasons ago
©Nick Jones
Chinnor finished level on points with second placed Old Elthamians last year
©Aaron Bayliss

The stage is set for another frantic season of National Two action up and down the country. Last year, the drama was pulsating from the beginning of September right through to the final weekend in April and expect nothing less this time around.

Teams have been busy during the summer preparing themselves for an exhilarating and brutal campaign, but what sort of shape are the 32 clubs in?

National Two North

Following a couple of chats with players and coaches alike, the one thing they have all said is that National Two North will an incredibly tough league this term.

Following last year’s title race only really being about Caldy, the likes of Bladyon and Macclesfield mixed together with Sale FC, Sedgley Park and others means the battle for promotion could be the most exciting and enthralling yet.

Macc return to the division once again after a tough season in National One. Giles Heagerty’s side won on just four occasions last term meaning it was another one year stint in the third tier of English rugby for the Blues. Now, back in National Two North, the Cheshire outfit will be hoping to replicate their success of two years ago when they clinched the title. Few would put it past Macc to achieve that once again.

While it is a swift arrival for Macclesfield back into National Two, Blaydon are now plying their trade at this level after several seasons in the third tier. On the club website, it states that Blaydon’s aim is an immediate return to National One and considering they were only six points away from safety last year, it suggests they have all the credentials to challenge for the title this season under new coach and Newcastle Falcon Ally Hogg.

Despite the heartbreak of a play-off defeat just under four months ago, there was no denying that the surprise story from this division last season came from Heywood Road and Sale FC. Jonathan Keep’s men were relegation candidates this time 12 months ago following a tough year in 2015/16, but what we saw was completely different. The Manchester based-club looked ruthless at home while performing solidly on the road and they were good value for their top two finish.

Was it just a fluke? We’ll find out in the first month of this season with tough games on the horizon, but in truth, they have recruited really well in the off season and the only way seems to be up for Sale.

The closest challengers to Sale were Sedgley Park and Leicester Lions who both begin the new season under new regimes. It seemed to be the same old story for Sedge last year as they failed to take that extra step needed to gain promotion and Matt Bebbington will be hoping he is the man to guide the men from Park Lane back into the top two. As for Leicester Lions, Andy Key had steered his side to back to back third placed finishes but the Midlands club now enter a fresh campaign under the stewardship of Jack Heald. Key swapped Westleigh Park for a crack at the Championship with Rotherham so it will be interesting to see if the Lions have still got their roar this term.

Behind the top four last year were the likes of Chester, Tynedale, South Leicester and Stourbridge. It was a mixed season for Chester who began slowly, but fired into life to earn themselves a top five finish. It was a vast improvement on the 2015/16 campaign for the Cheshire side and they will be hoping to build on that this year. They begin their term away at Tynedale, a side that look as though they are heading in the right direction under Scott Lawson. The former Newcastle Falcon guided Tyne to sixth place and if they can continue in the manner in which they finished the season, they may fancy their chances of challenging for promotion.

As for South Leicester and Stourbridge, they certainly had contrasting seasons. South had a wonderful term finishing in seventh following a relegation threatened campaign two years ago while the first half of 2017 was one to forget for Stour. Neil Mitchell’s men struggled for positive results and after looking as though they could challenge for a top two spot, they ended in eighth place. Mitchell and his side know they can do much better so expect a reaction from the Midlands side.

A reaction could well occur at Wharfedale too. Dale were relegated from National One in 2016 but found life in National Two North very tough last season. The Yorkshire club suffered with injuries and ended the campaign in 10th which was a good recovery, considering they were languishing towards the relegation zone for the majority of the season. Wharfedale will eager to get this new campaign off to a positive start. 

Above Dale, were Hinckley who had to be satisfied with their ninth place finish. Promoted last year, the men from Leicester Road had a flurry of results in October and November which were key to keeping them in this division after just one win from their opening seven games. With that in mind, Hinckley will be keen to build on last year’s achievements and begin the new campaign positively under the reign of George Chuter.

Elsewhere in the league, Luctonians and Otley will be hoping for slightly less stressful campaigns this time around. Both sides underperformed last year as they struggled for consistency and numerous injuries, but as we have seen in recent years, both have the ability to establish themselves in the top half of this table under Ryan Watkins and Peter Clegg, respectively.

Sheffield Tigers pulled off a remarkable recovery last season to avoid an immediate relegation back down to National Three. The Yorkshire club won five of their last six matches to beat the drop and they will be looking to cement their place in National Two this year. They have also recruited very well this term with Callum Wilson being one of the signings of the summer to add to an already impressive backline.

The Tigers will also be looking forward to a ‘derby day’ this term as local rivals Sheffield were promoted from National Three Midlands. Sheff secured a dramatic 32-31 win in the play-off match against Rossendale to clinch their place in the fourth tier and they have been joined by Huddersfield, who make a return to this level after a one year absence. The men from Lockwood Park won all 26 of their matches last year so Gareth Lewis’ side will be full of confidence heading into this weekend when they open the new season with a trip to South Leicester.

Opening Weekend Fixtures (Kick-offs are 3pm unless stated)

Otley v Stourbridge (1430)

Hinckley v Blaydon

Macclesfield v Wharfedale

Sale FC v Leicester Lions

Sheffield v Luctonians

Sheffield Tigers v Sedgley Park

South Leicester v Huddersfield

Tynedale v Chester

 National Two South

With Bishop’s Stortford and Old Elthamians both moving into National One in May and no side coming down from the third tier, the two promotion spots in National Two South are once again all to play for this term.

Chinnor were the closest challengers to the aforementioned teams and Matt Williams’ side would certainly have been disappointed not to take the step into the third tier of English rugby. The men from Kingsey Road were in a commanding position heading into 2017, but a blip in results coupled with the form of Storford and OEs, saw the Black and Whites just miss out on a top two spot. With good recruitment and a solid squad to work with, Chinnor will certainly be strong favourites to have a crack at promotion this time around.

Behind Chinnor, were the usual suspects of Taunton Titans and Redruth. Once again, the Titans made a strong start to the season with six wins from their first seven games but a sequence of shaky results cost them, despite a late resurgence towards the back end of the last campaign. Tony Yapp’s men certainly have what it takes to challenge for a top two spot, but they will be itching for some consistency. Redruth a solid term last season. Another top five finish and another century of points is a great foundation for the Reds to work from this season under new Head Coach Pale Nonu.

Other than Old Elthamians and Chinnor, you could argue that the surprise package in this division were Redingensians last year. The Rams once again showed progression at this level as they achieved a sixth place finish just two years on from promotion into National Two South. Mike Tewkesbury’s men are certainly enjoying themselves in this division and are certainly a side to watch out for this term.

Cinderford will be hoping that they can cause a few waves this season after a tough campaign in 2016/17. The Gloucestershire side were relegated from National One, but a poor first half to last season ended their hopes of an immediate return to the third tier. However, a much improved final four months of the campaign gave us a snapshot of what Paul Morris’ men could do this season. You can also say the same for Henley Hawks who dropped down to this division alongside the men from Dockham Road. The Hawks were very much in the relegation mix up until the final few weeks of the season, but six wins from their last nine games lifted them to ninth in the table. They will be hoping for much more successful term this time around.

Over the last couple of seasons, Canterbury and Clifton have finished in mid-table so both sides will be aiming to push on this term. Both have lacked consistency at times, but both showed exactly what they were capable of in spells last year. Clifton have retained a lot of their players from last season which is always positive heading into a new campaign while Canterbury have added the likes of former Wasp Matt Corker for a little extra experience as they aim to start on the front foot.

Bury St Edmunds had a mini revival in the final two months of last season. Four wins from their last seven games saw them move away from trouble and the Suffolk side will be aiming for a much more comfortable term. Added to that, they are now being guided by former British and Irish Lion Ollie Smith and ex Ireland international Kevin Maggs which is can only be a positive thing for Bury who have also recruited heavily as they begin their third successive season at this level.

Bury finished 13 points ahead of the bottom three last year, but it was another close shave for Jody Levett’s Worthing Raiders. Worthing finished just two points ahead of relegated side Barnes due a long list of injuries so they will be eager to put a tough couple of years behind them and have a solid, injury free term this year. Along with Worthing, London Irish Wild Geese and Barnstaple both stayed in this division by the finest of margins but for those two sides, survival was always their aim.

Both teams will know they will be in for another tough season especially with four teams coming up from National Three. Broadstreet were promoted from National Three Midlands as champions, but have been put into the southern division which may go against them on their travels. However, Director of Rugby Paul Hirst has looked at the positives and thinks this league may suit his Street’s style of play so it will be interesting to see how their latest season in the fourth tier of English rugby goes.

Joining Broadstreet, are Wimbledon who are entering their first season at this level and may look to the likes of Barnstaple for inspiration to avoid an immediate relegation. The South West London side beat Dings Crusaders 55-5 in the National Three South play-off under the stewardship of Harlequins’ Nick Evans while Tonbridge Juddians clinched the National Three London and South East title after losing just once all season.  Finally, Old Redcliffians romped to the National Three South West crown last term but all three of those sides will have the sole aim to stay in this division.

It is safe to say that at both ends of the table, there will be drama right from the word go.

Opening Weekend Fixtures (Kick-offs are 3pm unless stated)

Clifton v Chinnor (1430)

Bury St Edmunds v Tonbridge Juddians

Canterbury v Cinderford

Henley Hawks v Redingensians

Redruth v Old Redcliffians

Taunton Titans v Broadstreet

Wimbledon v Barnstaple

Worthing Raiders v London Irish Wild Geese

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