National Two North and South 2019/20 season preview

Scunthorpe are one the new teams in the fourth tier this term
©Maria and Bill Rhoades

The new season in National Two North and National Two South kicks off this weekend and after thrilling title races and relegation fights last year, expect another eight months of twists and turns across both leagues.

We take a look at the two divisions and highlight some key teams ahead of the 2019/20 campaign.

National Two North

Promotion on the cards?

Chester missed out on an historic promotion to National One after suffering a defeat against Canterbury in the National Two Play-Off, but Jan Van Deventer’s side will be keen to build on last season as they look to mix it towards the top once again.

2018/19 was the best campaign Chester have ever experienced and they were only four points off eventual champions Hull Ionians. The Cheshire outfit accumulated 109 points from their 30 matches and something similar this term would keep the men from Hare Lane on an upward curve.

Sedgley Park missed out on a successive play-off appearance by just eight points, but the Tigers were not even in the running for a top two spot back in December. However, a resurgent second half of the season saw them claim the bronze medal position, but there has been change at Park Lane during the summer. Head coach Matt Bebbington has moved on to Sandbach and former Yorkshire Carnegie and St Helens man Scott Barrow has taken over the reins as the club aim to maintain their status a frontrunner in this division.

Whilst a new face has come in at Sedge, the same can be said for Loughborough Students as Rhys Edwards has been tasked with guiding the Midlands outfit back into National One. The Students’ eight-year stint in the third tier came to an end last term, but with the club celebrating its centenary this season, they will be eager to mark their milestone with a strong National Two North campaign.

Another side down from National One, Caldy, will also be hoping to shine on their return to the division. After suffering heartbreak on the final day of last season, it will be intriguing to see how the Wirral outfit apply themselves in the fourth tier, but they do have the tools to succeed. A number of their key players have re-signed for this term which could be crucial, whilst Huddersfield’s own recruitment during the summer suggests they could be challenging for a top two spot alongside Caldy. Director of Rugby Gareth Lewis will be pleased with their business during the off-season as the Yorkshire club look to take the next step after two very encouraging campaigns which have ended in back to back top six finishes.

Tynedale and Fylde will both fancy breaking into the top two. Ben Woods had an excellent first season in charge of Tyne as he guided them to fourth spot, but the North-East club will want to begin the campaign on the front foot after a slow start 12 months ago. As for Fylde, Warren Spragg would have been disappointed with the way his side concluded 2018/19 as four defeats from their last five games ended their promotion hopes. However, a superb 50-10 victory against Hull Ionians to round-off pre-season will give the Lancashire outfit a lot of confidence ahead of the opening weekend.

Preston Grasshoppers – whose excellent summer signings include Chris Taylor and Jordan Dorrington – will want kick on from their impressive season last term. The Hoppers returned to National Two North and finished in seventh place under the guidance of Paul Arnold and they are more than capable of improving on that league position this year.

Also, watch out for Otley and Hinckley. Both teams flirted with the idea of a top two finish last year, but in the end, it didn’t materialise for either club. Otley eventually ran out of steam whilst Hinckley’s glaring inconsistency cost them. Superb at home, but below par away, Scott Hamilton and his coaching staff will be hoping to avoid too many woes on the road this season as the Hornets aim to improve on a 10th placed finish.

Wharfedale will be aiming to build on their excellent eighth placed finish from last season whilst for Stourbridge and Sheffield Tigers, they will want to the climb up the division this year.

The Tigers have recruited heavily during the summer and Jamie Broadley's men looked strong during their pre-season outings whilst Stour's Director of Rugby Neil Bolster has added former Worcester player Max Stelling and Alex Davidson to his coaching team.

New teams on the block

Scunthorpe and Luctonians were both promoted from Midlands Premier and are now making a return to National Two North. For Scunthorpe, this is the first time they have been in the fourth tier since 2016/17, but head coach Tim Robinson believes the Greens have ‘learnt a lot’ since their last spell at this level. They showed superb consistency to lift the title last term and they needed too because Luctonians finished just one point behind them in the table. Ryan Watkins’ men then entered the play-off and a wonderful performance saw them secure a 31-17 win over a Blaydon and an immediate promotion back to National Two North after relegation in 2017/18.

From North Premier, Hull are back in the fourth tier after a four-year absence. Gary Pearce’s side racked up an astonishing 119 points last season to claim promotion and after a few seasons of rebuilding, the Yorkshire club are ready to give National Two North another crack.

Opening day fixtures (All 3pm kick-offs unless stated): Hinckley v Caldy, Huddersfield v Hull, Preston Grasshoppers v Sedgley Park (2:30pm), Scunthorpe v Fylde, Sheffield Tigers v Chester, Stourbridge v Loughborough Students, Tynedale v Luctonians, Wharfedale v Otley

National Two South

Aiming for the top?

Esher finished 15th in National One last season and the Surrey club will be itching for an instant return to the third tier. Peter Winterbottom is now in charge at Molesey Road and that isn’t the only change as the club have recruited over 20 new players for the new National Two South season. It might take them a while to gel, but their additions do highlight their intentions.

Tonbridge Juddians, who are preparing for their third successive campaign in National Two South, have enjoyed the last two seasons at this level. Peter Dankert’s squad performed superbly in 2017/18 to finish in sixth place and last year, TJs ended with a points total of 120 - a single point behind play-off winners Canterbury – following a remarkable run of just one defeat in 22 games. Similarly, Henley Hawks will be ambitious heading into the new campaign after also racking up 120 points. Nigel Dudding’s side have steadily worked their way up National Two South over the last two seasons and the Hawks will now have a top two spot in their sights.

As ever, Taunton Titans look well placed to challenge once again. The Somerset club have been close to breaking into the top two for the last few seasons, but mini blips in form at certain points in the campaign have proved costly. Last year, a couple of disappointing results in March was their undoing, but Tony Yapp and his side are getting closer to the promotion spots.

Leicester Lions head south

After 15 seasons in National Two North, Leicester Lions will now be competing in National Two South this term. Club chairman Ken Whitehead did say they were ‘apprehensive’ about the switch in league, but he and new head coach Gareth Collins are excited by the challenge ahead. 

In the last two years, two Midlands clubs (Broadstreet and Birmingham and Solihull) have competed in National Two South and they both suffered relegation from the division so the Lions will hoping to avoid the same fate. Their recruitment during the summer has also caught the eye with a handful of players from rivals South Leicester and Stourbridge arriving at TMDP Park so there is a sense of anticipation surrounding Leicester Lions as the first day of the season approaches.

The middle ground

Last season, 30 points separated the top five and sixth placed Clifton and before we discuss Matt Salter's side ahead of the new term, let's take a brief look at the teams who were all jostling position in the midfield of National Two South in 2018/19.

Bury St Edmunds had a change of coach during the last campaign and Nick Wakley is ready for his first full season in charge after guiding the Wolfpack to eighth place. An influx of new faces, plus a large contingency of players re-signing from last year, means Bury have all the tools to kick on this time around.

Redruth finished one point and one position above Bury last season and similarly to the Suffolk outfit, the Reds also brought in a new coach midway through 2018/19. Nigel Hambly returned to the Recreation Ground and Redruth go into this opening weekend with a positive pre-season under their belt. Can they sustain a challenge towards the top in 2019/20?

Worthing Raiders and Old Albanian will be keen to break into the top eight this term, especially the latter, after a mixed return to National Two South last year. Now under the guidance of James Osborn and James Buckland, OAs have made some strong signings during the summer and they could not only be in the running for a top half finish, but a promotion bid is certainly not out of the question.

As for Barnes, they would have headed into the summer with a smile on their face after securing another season in National Two South. Joe Gray's side finished 16 points clear of the relegation places last year and the London-based outfit come into the new campaign with a great balance of experience, but a sprinkling of new additions too.

A very West Country feel

All three teams from the West Country remain in National Two South in 2019/20 and the tasty Bristol derbies will be on show once again. Clifton held the bragging rights during the off-season as the Lavender and Blacks finished in sixth place following their most successful campaign in four years. Matt Salter has recruited some exciting attacking options as Clifton aim to close the gap between themselves and the promotion places.

Old Redcliffians & Dings Crusaders were separated by just four points last year and there is a sense of optimism around Old Reds going into the new season. Bath Rugby's Alex Davies is now the head coach at Scotland Lane while Jack Walker joins his team-mate as a forwards coach. With Premiership experience, the duo could help steer the club towards the top half of the table in their third consecutive campaign at this level.

As for Dings, they would have been very satisfied to stay in National Two South for the upcoming season and they have all the resources to avoid being dragged into a relegation battle this term. With Stean Williams at the helm, the club would have learnt a lot from a intense pre-season campaign and with their facilities at Shaftesbury Park, the Crusaders could march up the table this term.

Stepping into the fourth tier

Twelve months ago, Sutton and Epsom may not have been tipped for promotion from London and SE Premier but the Black and Whites defied the odds to clinched the league title with 102 points. Jeff Parsons and Mike Schmid guided the club into National Two South and if they can showcase their excellent consistency which was on display throughout last season, they will be more than up for the fight this term.

Westcliff finished in second place behind Sutton and Epsom, but a runners-up spot wasn’t good enough for the club as they secured a thumping 44-5 victory in the play-off against Barnstaple to earn a first ever promotion to National Two South. Director of Rugby Rick Compton will have Jacob Ford, brother of England fly-half George, alongside him as a head coach this term, so the team will be aiming to enjoy their new chapter at this level.

Based on last season, Bournemouth look the most dangerous when comparing the newly promoted sides after a storming campaign in South West Premier. The Lions romped to the league title thanks to 25 wins from 26 games and won the division by an unprecedented 27 points. Will Croker’s side were unbeaten at home last term and after a five-year absence from National Two, plus a rebuilding process, Bournemouth are raring to go in the fourth tier once again.

Opening day fixtures (All 3pm kick-offs unless stated): Clifton v Barnes (2:30pm), Henley Hawks v Sutton and Epsom, Old Albanian v Bury St Edmunds, Redruth v Esher, Taunton Titans v Bournemouth, Tonbridge Juddians v Leicester Lions, Westcliff v Dings Crusaders, Worthing Raiders v Old Redcliffians

2019-20 National League 2 North