The first page of the final chapter: Prepare for a breathless conclusion to the National League Rugby campaign

A positive March for Billingham has given them more than a fighting chance of staying in National Two
©Mike Craig

Title races and relegation battles are still alive going into April so how will the final month of another compelling season unfold?

National One

Is anyone that surprised? Yet again, we enter the final month of the season with the title race delicately poised while the scrap for survival is still an ongoing narrative.

At the top, league leaders Chinnor will continue their promotion bid in Round 24 five points clear of rivals Rams RFC (2nd). Nick Easter's side have essentially led the way since Christmas and with three games to go, their destiny is very much in their own hands. This Saturday could also be pivotal as the Black and Whites host Leicester Lions (12th) while Rams travel to fifth-placed Plymouth Albion.

On paper, Rams might have the tougher assignment but as we know in National One, anything can happen. Bringing it back to Chinnor, they welcome Leicester Lions to Kingsey Road having won their last seven home games but two of their most recent performances on their own patch truly highlight their steely focus.

Against Bishop's Stortford and Taunton Titans - who like Leicester Lions are involved in the relegation fight - Chinnor won both fixtures 80-10, running in 12 tries on each occasion.

So the visitors from the Midlands will be wary of that firepower and will be aiming to frustrate the table-toppers this weekend. It might seem like a tall order but any sort of positive outcome for Gareth Collins' side would be valuable. The Lions come into this one off the back of a disappointing result against rivals Bishop's Stortford which leaves them six points clear of the drop. With fixtures against Darlington Mowden Park (6th) and Sale FC (10th) to conclude 2023/24, collecting points is a must if they are to stay in National One.

With Leicester Lions sitting just above the dreaded dotted line, the bottom two of Cinderford (13th) and Taunton Titans (14th) will want to reel them in.

As things stand, Taunton are seven points from safety but a dramatic come-from-behind victory against Darlington Mowden Park last time out has reignited their hopes of avoiding the drop. This weekend, Tony Yapp's troops visit Sale FC while Cinderford entertain an in-form Rosslyn Park (3rd).

Intriguingly, Taunton face Cinderford next Saturday so what will be the state of play going into the penultimate round of the season?

Bishop's Stortford (11th) are the final side aiming to secure their status in the third tier and out of the bottom four clubs, they seem to be the team with momentum behind them. Vital wins over Leicester Lions and Taunton have moved them seven points above the trapdoor so Marcus Cattell's side will be looking to pick up from where they left off against Darlington Mowden Park.

Elsewhere, Birmingham Moseley (4th) go to Richmond (7th) and two sides who secured their safety last month - Blackheath (8th) and Sedgley Park (9th) - meet in the capital.

National Two North

Other than their blistering start to life in National Two North, March may have been the most enjoyable segment of the season for Billingham (12th). Last month, back-to-back home wins and a narrow loss against Preston Grasshoppers returned 11 points from a possible 15 and that could be crucial if Peter Evans' side are to be playing level four rugby next term.

In the same time frame, relegation rivals Hull Ionians (13th) only managed a single point so with Billingham back at home this weekend against fourth-placed Wharfedale, spirits will be high at Greenwood Road.

As it stands, Billingham are five points clear of the 'danger zone' and there is a scenario where they could confirm their safety on Saturday. That will depend on whether they can earn another home bonus-point victory and the North-East club would also require Hull Ionians to get nothing from their home clash against Sheffield (3rd).

Just as a side note, if the season were to end at the time of publishing this preview, Hull Ionians would actually be safe from the drop despite sitting in 13th place but Joe Makin's side will not want to be relying on the fortunes of others just yet.

Switching things to summit, and what happened last time out has blown the title race open. In one of the classic promotion battles of recent times, Rotherham Titans' (2nd) 32-26 win over league leaders Leeds Tykes means the gap at the top is down to just two points with three games remaining.

The Titans are now on a run of 12 successive bonus-point wins but their scheduled meeting with Sheffield Tigers (7th) this weekend has been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch so the Tykes could stretch their advantage when they welcome sixth-placed Tynedale to West Yorkshire.

Also across National Two North, Huddersfield (14th) will be relegated this weekend if the division's bottom club fail to beat ninth-placed Otley while Fylde (5th) visit Hull (8th) and Preston Grasshoppers (11th) take on Lymm (10th) with National Two rugby all but confirmed for both teams.

National Two East

Often in sport, promotion races will come to a crescendo and that absolutely is the case in National Two East. Round 23 saw the biggest twist to date with Esher (1st) moving four points clear at the top and as obvious as it sounds, April will be the biggest month of the season.

Let's start with Esher. After back-to-back bonus-point successes, Peter Winterbottom's side have some breathing space again but it feels imperative that they begin the final chapter of the campaign with another victory. This weekend, the EEEs visit 12th-placed Worthing before ending the term with potentially huge clashes against title rivals Dorking and Barnes, respectively. In between those two fixtures, they do have to fulfil what could be a vital game in hand against Guernsey Raiders (11th) but right now, their immediate priority is a trip to West Sussex.

As for the aforementioned Dorking and Barnes, the duo stumbled last time out. Dorking moved up to second but fell to a 28-26 loss at Sevenoaks (8th) while Barnes were beaten away at fifth-placed Henley Hawks.

It means the pair are once again playing catch up and in Dorking's case, returning to winning ways against Tonbridge Juddians (4th) will be crucial if they are to set up a showdown at Esher in Round 25. However, that is easier said than done as TJs arrive at The Big Field having won seven of their last eight games including a triumph over the league leaders.

In terms of Barnes - who are five points off the top - they entertain Sevenoaks with Jack Heald's charges looking to avenge January's defeat against the Kent outfit.

Down at the bottom, Wimbledon (13th) are still battling for survival. Four games without registering a single point has kept Collin Osborne's side in the danger zone, but they can seriously boost their chances of staying in National Two if they can beat already relegated North Walsham on Saturday.

Elsewhere, Henley visit Westcombe Park (10th), Bury St Edmunds (6th) go to Canterbury (7th) and Old Albanian (9th) are at Guernsey Raiders.

National Two West

One could argue that the pendulum in the National Two West title race has gradually swung towards Dings Crusaders but it has been far more relentless than that. The sheer consistency and persistence of the Bristol outfit has left them on the cusp of promotion to National One after stitching together a remarkable 18-game unbeaten run.

Whilst Dings haven't lost since September, title rivals Luctonians (2nd) have hit some bumps in the road and the Crusaders have punished them. Heading into the final three matches of the term, Stean Williams and Luke Arscott's troops are seven points clear and are seemingly in the driving seat.

And there is a scenario where they can clinch the title in Round 24.

If Dings collect three or more points than Luctonians on Saturday, the championship will be on its way to Shaftesbury Park. The Crusaders travel to bottom two side Newport (Salop) while Lucs entertain Hornets (11th).

In terms of Luctonians, three defeats from their last four have decimated their title bid but Ryan Watkins' side will continue their fight in what has been another excellent campaign for the Herefordshire club.

Away from the title race, Clifton will be targeting a third consecutive top-three finish and they continue their pursuit of that away at Loughborough Students (10th) while Exeter University (4th) host Camborne (7th), Hinckley (5th) visit sixth-placed Old Redcliffians and Chester (9th) go to Bournville (12th).

Redruth v Dudley Kingswinford has been postponed.

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