There’s much talk at the moment about the lack of consistency amongst the top performers in National 1 this year, with no team able to pull clear of the chasing pack. Even though Hartpury College and Blackheath have won 5 of their 6 games so far, they have still only managed a total 23 and 22 points respectively and Ampthill, having won a game less split the two, sharing top spot with 23 points themselves. What this clearly demonstrates is the importance of earning the extra bonus point for the fourth try and, given how tight things are at the top, the additional points amassed over the course of the season could make all the difference, even to the extent of the side promoted losing more games than teams below them.
I thought I’d look back over the previous three seasons and compare how the top teams in each of the seasons 2012/13, 2013/14 and 2014/15 had fared after six games compared to the current season. Please see below:
2015 – Round 6
- Hartpury College – 23 points F179 A122
- Ampthill – 23 points
- Blackheath – 22 points
- Esher – 20
- Coventry – 19 F164 A 115
- Richmond -19
- Rosslyn Park – 18
2014 – Round 6
- Ealing Trailfinders – 29 F180 A83 Final Position: 1st
- Fylde – 26
- Rosslyn Park – 26
- Richmond – 24
- Esher – 22
- Coventry – 20 F181 A 133 Final Position: 3rd
2103 – Round 6
- Doncaster Knights – 25 F189 A82 Final Position: 1st
- Loughborough Students – 22
- Coventry – 20 F159 A92 Final Position: 4th
- Esher – 20
- Rosslyn Park – 19
2012 – Round 6
- Ealing Trailfinders – 24 F241 A132 Final Position: 1st
- Rosslyn Park – 22
- Cinderford – 22
- Esher – 21
- Blackheath – 20
- Wharfedale – 18
- Coventry – 17 F175 A142 Final Position: 9th
I’m sure any statistician reading this would be able to come up with much more compelling data, but a number of things do seem to stand out. The most striking thing to me is that the team leading the division after 6 games in each of the last three seasons has gone on win the league outright. They haven’t necessarily remained in the top spot for the whole season, but they have been there at the end. Ealing Trailfinders in 2013, Doncaster Knights in 2014 and Ealing Trailfinders again in 2015, so perhaps NCA Rugby should be engraving the National 1 winner’s trophy with ‘Hartpury College 2016’ even as you read this.
Now it was Paddy Pantsdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, who said he would “publicly eat his hat” if the BBC exit poll predictions suggesting the party would lose 47 seats were correct, something he was to regret the following morning as the media ridiculed his misreading of the changing political landscape. I will make a similar ‘promise’ should Hartpury College gain promotion this year, although instead of eating a hat, I’ll buy one from each of the 16 participating clubs in next year’s National 1.
We were well beaten by Hartpury College earlier in the season ( Hartpury College ) but the loss was more about our own shortcomings than Hartpury’s overall strengths and despite such a desperate performance from Coventry, we still had three chance to win the game in the dying minutes. I’m taking nothing away from the visitors that day, they deserved the win and anything less would have been a travesty, but champions-elect they aren’t.
The winners in the last two seasons were clear favourites, the relegated teams from the Championship in 2013 and 2014 with finances that allowed them to retain most of their Championship squads on mostly full-time contracts. Not so this year. With Plymouth Albion losing all but a handful of their Championship squad at the end of last year, this is very much a season of consolidation for them and having already lost 4 of their opening 6 games, history is unlikely to repeat itself. In 2012, Ealing had finished 2nd to Jersey and were again strongly fancied for promotion in 2013.
With no out-and-out favourite this year, the door has very much been left wide open for the rest of the teams in National 1 to stake their claim and at the moment their is a lot of jockeying round for position at the top. The cream has yet to rise to the top whilst some teams have still to sink under the full weight of expectation. It happens each year, teams like Cinderford and Wharfedale in 2012/13, Loughborough in 2013/14 and Richmond in 2014/15 flatter to deceive early on, only to find their right level over the course of the full season.
Hartpury College will doubtless be a top six finisher but they won’t be in the top two or three – they have leaked points already and are conceding an average of over 7 points a game more than the leaders after 6 games in the two previous seasons. That’s not sustainable over a whole season for a team to win the league, unless you’re Ealing in 2013, in which case it doesn’t matter how many points you concede, with players like Phil Chesters to run in 40+ tries a season, you’re always going to be in with a shout.
It’s still very early days and because there is no clear favourite, a lot of the teams are closely matched and therefore results haven’t been easy to predict. Once winter takes a grip, teams suffer injuries and clubs with DR players have them recalled to take part in different competitions, the table will begin to take on a different look, one much closer the final outcome in April.
Coventry’s strength in depth, their decision so far to avoid DR signings and, hopefully, a decreasing number of names on the injury list, should mean our position will be strengthened the longer the season goes on, rather than the other way around. Things have worked very much in our favour so far this season in that when we had our ‘wobble’ and lost a couple of games, teams ahead of us weren’t able to take advantage so that we now find ourselves just 4 points adrift of top spot having yet to play anywhere near the quality of rugby of which the team are capable.
At home, in front of much larger crowds than is average for National 1, we have a distinct advantage and with several of the backs beginning to return from injury, I fully expect us to earn bonus points in most games for that all important fourth try. Away from home, with out points against total relatively low, I believe we can grind out some hard fought wins, as we did against Hull, even if it’s not that pretty to watch. I’d rather ‘win ugly’ than ‘lose pretty’ sometimes.
It would be lovely to be top of the shop on 30 points from our 6 games, but that was never going to happen. And there’s always a danger of peaking too early.
The way this season is panning out at the moment, any team that can put together an unbeaten run of 6 or 7 games over the next couple of months is going to be to have a distinct advantage come Christmas, something this team is more than capable of achieving. If Cov can show some decent form and play close to their strengths, this year the league is there for the taking.
However, Fylde will have something to say about that on Saturday, or even Rosslyn Park the week after…
Come on, Cov!