The dust is beginning to settle on stage 1 of the RFU Championship, spring is in the air and rugby pitches up and down the country are starting to put their summer coats on.
For some there is a feast of exciting rugby in store, whilst for others in relegation Pool C a white knuckle ride awaits.
All the clubs have now announced their fixtures, Nottingham's final play-off fixture at Meadow Lane against London Welsh will be part of a double-header of rugby and football on Saturday, April 21.
The game against the Exiles follows Notts County’s npower League 1 meeting with Bury, which has been moved forward to 12.30pm to accommodate Nottingham Rugby’s match kicking-off at 3pm.
Friday March 9 - Bristol v Doncaster 7:45pm
Saturday March 10 - London Welsh v Nottingham 12.30pm
Saturday March 10 - Cornish Pirates v Leeds Carnegie 2:30pm
Saturday March 10 - Rotherham v Bedford Blues 2pm
Saturday March 10 - Esher v London Scottish 3pm
Friday March 9 - Moseley v Plymouth Albion Home 7.30
Sunday March 18 - Bristol v London Welsh 3pm
Sunday March 18 - Nottingham v Doncaster 2:30pm
Friday March 16 - Bedford Blues v Cornish Pirates 7:45pm
Sunday March 18 - Leeds v Rotherham 12:15pm
Friday March 16 - Plymouth Albion v Esher 7:45 pm
Sunday March 18 - London Scottish v Moseley 2.00pm
Sunday March 25 - Nottingham v Bristol 3pm
Saturday March 24 - London Welsh v Doncaster 2:30pm
Sunday March 25 - Cornish Pirates v Rotherham 3pm
Sunday March 25 - Leeds v Bedford Blues 3pm
Saturday March 24 - Moseley v Esher 3pm
Friday March 23 - Plymouth Albion v London Scottish 7.45pm
Round 4 (3R)
Friday March 30 - Bristol v Nottingham 19:45
Saturday March 31 - Doncaster v London Welsh 2:30pm
Saturday March 31 - Bedford Blues v Leeds 3pm
Saturday March 31 - Rotherham v Cornish Pirates 2pm
Sunday April 1 - London Scottish v Plymouth Albion 2pm
Saturday March 31 - Esher v Moseley 3pm
Round 5 (2R)
Sunday April 15 - Bristol v London Welsh 15:15
Saturday April 14 - Doncaster v Nottingham 2:30pm
Sunday April 15 - Cornish Pirates v Bedford Blues 3pm
Saturday April 14 - Rotherham v Leeds 3pm
Saturday April 14 - Esher v Plymouth Albion Home 3pm
Saturday April 14 - Moseley v London Scottish 3.00
Round 6 (1R)
Saturday April 21 - Bristol v Doncaster Home 3pm
Saturday April 21 - Nottingham v London Welsh (venue TBC) 3pm
Saturday April 21 - Bedford Blues v Rotherham 3pm
Saturday April 21 - Leeds Carnegie v Cornish Pirates 3pm
Saturday April 21 - Esher v London Scottish 3pm
Saturday April 21 - Plymouth Albion v Mosley 3pm
Boosted by the biggest crowd seen at Old Deer Park for many a year, the final round in Stage 1 of the Championship attracted a very healthy average attendance of 2,538 spectators. London Welsh versus Leeds on Saturday was seen as the perfect appetiser for the Six Nations clash between England and Wales later that afternoon, but the result did not match the expectations of the majority of the 4,400 spectators in the ground whose disappointment was soon tempered by Triple Crown celebrations.
There were maiden tries for Ed Williamson and Halani Aulika, a brace for Jordan Davies and Stevie McColl marked his return from injury with another score as Leeds won 39-29.
London Welsh were the only side of the top four to lose, with top seeds Bristol too strong for a Doncaster side that was playing its fourth game in ten days. George Watkins was the hat- trick hero in a 52-26 win.
Bristol also attracted a crowd well in excess of 4,000 in another superb show of support from the club's fans. The Premiership hopefuls boast the highest average attendance in the division of 5,217, with an aggregate of 57,394 fans flocking through the Memorial Stadium gates: an increase of 18% on last season's figure and only marginally down on 2009/10 - the first season following Bristol's demotion from the Premiership.
The top average attendances largely reflect the league standings, with Bedford showing the next best average attendance figure with 2,640 and Cornish Pirates in fourth with 2,248.
Blues director of rugby Mike Rayer expressed his pride at leading his side to second in the Championship table, writes James Heneghan in Bedford Today..
The Blues wrapped up second spot with a 40-26 win over Nottingham and go into Pool B as top seeds for the play-offs.
Rayer said: “We’re not under the radar any more after finishing second last year because that was a bit of a surprise to many people”.
“It’s all about taking that next step. There are two groups of death out there so whichever one we’re in, it’s a tough one to get out of.”
Full Story www.bedfordtoday.co.uk
The Blues have also confirmed that their first home game of the Championship Play-Offs will take place against Cornish Pirates on Friday March 16 with a 7.45pm kick-off.
With the Six Nations coming to its conclusion on Saturday 17th March, the Blues have switched the Pool B game against the Cornish side to the Friday night to ensure that all fans can enjoys that fixture without missing any of the International action.
Bedford Blues Chairman Geoff Irvine said: “The visit of the Cornish Pirates always results in a thrilling encounter and a Friday night fixture under the floodlights is always an enjoyable event and I’m sure it will be the best way to start a rugby-filled weekend.””
Bedford's remaining home fixtures will take place against Leeds on Saturday 31st March and against Rotherham on Saturday 21st April both with 3pm kick-offs.
Full Story www.bedfordrugby.co.uk
Bedford Pool B Fixtures
Sat 10th March: Rotherham v Bedford Blues Kick Off 2pm
Fri 16th March: Bedford Blues v Cornish Pirates Kick Off 7:45pm
Sun 25th March: Leeds v Bedford Blues Kick Off 3pm
Sat 31st March: Bedford Blues v Leeds Kick Off 3pm
Sun 15th April: Cornish Pirates v Bedford Blues Kick Off 3pm
Sat 21st April: Bedford Blues v Rotherham Kick Off 3pm
Liam Middleton has been working overtime as he looks to add to Bristol's squad for next season, but the head coach's focus is firmly on the here and now.
And while the Bristol boss continues to search for new talent to bolster his squad for the 2012-13 campaign, he said negotiating the Championship play-offs which kick off at Doncaster on Friday, March 9 must remain the club's top priority.
"We're always having a look at what's out there and players who want to join and add strength to our squad, but at the moment we're focusing on the current group," he said.
"The recruitment period is probably the hardest of the season and, unfortunately, it falls in the most important part of the season.
"It's a lot of late-night work, because you've got to put it in – we've put a big emphasis on making the right decisions about who is in the squad."
Full Story www.thisisbristol.co.uk
Middleton has also added proven Premiership experience to his squad for next season with the capture of Leicester scrum-half James Grindal.
The 31 year-old has made over two-hundred first team appearances for Leicester Tigers and Newcastle Falcons in a thirteen year career at the top level.
Since his professional debut in 1999, Grindal has won three Premiership titles, two Heineken Cups and the Powergen Cup in 2004.
Bristol's play-off clash with London Welsh at Old Deer Park has been rearranged.
Originally scheduled for Saturday, the match has been pushed back 24 hours and will now be televised live on Sky on Sunday 15 April with a 3.15pm kick off.
Bristol Pool A Fixtures
Friday 9th March - Doncaster Away 19:45
Sunday 18th March - London Welsh Home 15:00
Sunday 25th March - Nottingham Away 15:00
Friday 30th March - Nottingham Home 19:45
Sunday 15th April - London Welsh Away 15:15
Saturday 21st April - Doncaster Home 15:00
Cornish Pirates Pool B fixtures
Saturday March 10 - KO 2:30pm Leeds Carnegie - Home
Friday March 16 KO 7:435pm Bedford Blues - Away
Sunday March 25 - KO 3pm Rotherham Titans - Home
Saturday March 31 - KO 2pm Rotherham Titans - Away
Sunday April 15 - KO 3pm Bedford Blues -Home
Saturday April 21 - KO 3pm Leeds Carnegie - Away
Doncaster Knights Pool A fixtures
Friday March 9 7:45pm Bristol - Home
Sunday March 18 2:30pm v Nottingham - Away
Saturday March 24 2:30pm London Welsh - Away
Saturday March 31 2:30pm London Welsh - Home
Saturday April 14 2:30pm v Nottingham - Home
Saturday April 21 3pm v Bristol - Away
With Mike Schmid's Esher finishing the regular RFU Championship season with a stylish 41-17 victory over Plymouth Albion, hopes are high going into the relegation play-off pool.
If Esher are to make a successful bid for Championship survival via the relegation play-offs this season, it will be without skipper David Slemen.
The 33-year-old fly half was forced into retirement last week after finally succumbing to the back problem that has kept him sidelined throughout the current campaign.
But the former Harlequins and Connacht star insisted the side can cope without him as they bid to replicate last season’s successful battle against the drop.
“I’m not a fan of the play-offs. If you finish bottom you should go down,” he said.
“But our performances since Christmas show that we are not a bottom four side and the play-offs give us a second chance."
Full Story www.richmondandtwickenhamtimes.co.uk
Esher Relegation Pool Fixtures
Saturday, 10th March: London Scottish - Home 3pm
Friday, 16th March: Plymouth Albion - Away 7.45pm
Saturday, 24th March: Moseley - Away 3pm
Saturday, 31st March: Moseley - Home 3pm
Saturday, 14th April: Plymouth Albion Home 3pm
Saturday, 21st April: London Scottish - Away 3pm
Leeds Carnegie Pool B fixtures
Saturday March 10 - KO 2:30pm Cornish Pirates - Away
Sunday March 18 - KO 12:15pm Rotherham Titans - Home
Sunday March 25 - KO 3pm Bedford Blues - Home
Saturday March 31 - KO 3pm Bedford Blues - Away
Saturday April 14 - KO 3pm Rotherham Titans - Away
Saturday April 21 - KO 3pm Cornish Pirates - Home
London Scottish Relegation Pool Fixtures
Saturday 10th March, Esher - Away 3pm
Sunday 18th March, Moseley - Home 2pm
Friday 23rd March, Plymouth Albion - Away 7.45pm
Sunday 1st April, Plymouth Albion - Home 2pm
Saturday 14 April, Moseley - Away 3pm (TBC)
Saturday 21st April, Esher - Home 3pm
London Welsh may have failed to make it three wins in six days, as they went down 39-29 to Leeds Carnegie at Old Deer Park on Saturday, but as the curtain came down on the regular Championship season head coach Lyn Jones was overall satisfied with his side’s progress report with thoughts now very much on the play-offs.
A bonus-point victory over Doncaster Knights in mid-week had already guaranteed the Exiles at least fourth place, having three days earlier beaten London Scottish.
Leeds would prove a step too far for Welsh, but Jones believes the Exiles are well placed going into the play-offs, where they’ll face Bristol, Nottingham and Doncaster.
“We’re quite pleased; we were looking for a slightly better performance today, but when you’re trying to play an expansive game people have got to realise that they need to improve in their skill levels,” said Jones, who in the last six days has been able to welcome back long term injury absentees Greg Bateman, James Tideswell, Paul Mackey and Simon Whatling.
“It’s been a tough winter with so many guys off their feet, but this week has been a good exercise finishing the season with getting them back, and we’re delighted that they’ve come through a strenuous week without injury.”
However, that didn’t mask a disappointing display by the Exiles against Leeds, which saw them leak five tries, including four in a strong second half performance by the Yorkshire side.
“It was a disappointing performance at the end of a tough week, where we’ve had three games in six days. I guess that’s why we fell away the last 15 minutes or so,” added Jones.
“Our individual skills were found wanting today and Leeds capitalised on our inability to pass and catch.
“Having said that, this week had been about getting boys back from injury and getting them some game time so they can re-gather match fitness.
“Credit must go to Leeds, they played very well second half, scored five good tries and showed some good ingredients for doing well in the play-offs.
“There’s eight sides in the play-offs who’ve been there or thereabouts. Maybe Bristol have an edge, but there’s nothing to pick between the sides.”
London Welsh Pool A fixtures:
Saturday 10th March Nottingham, Home 12.30pm
Sunday 18th March Bristol, Away 3pm
Saturday 24th March Doncaster Knights, Home 2:30pm
Saturday 31st March Doncaster Knights, Away 2:30pm
Sunday 15th April Bristol, Home 3:15pm (Live on Sky Sports)
Saturday 21st April Nottingham, Away TBC
Moseley Relegation Pool Fixtures
Friday March 9 Plymouth Albion Home 7.30
Sunday March 18 London Scottish Away 2.00
Saturday March 24 Esher RFC Home 3.00
Saturday March 31 Esher RFC Away TBC
Saturday April 14 London Scottish Home 3.00
Saturday April 21 Plymouth Albion Away 3.00
Nottingham will play its final RFU Championship promotion play-off fixture at Meadow Lane against London Welsh as a part of an exciting double-header of rugby and football on Saturday, April 21.
The game against the Exiles follows Notts County’s npower League 1 meeting with Bury, which has been moved forward to 12.30pm to accommodate Nottingham Rugby’s crucial Pool A match kicking-off at 3pm.
While the stakes are high for Nottingham, with the game against Welsh branded “The Verdict” in the club’s push for the Premiership, the unique afternoon of sport packs plenty of significance for County as they hunt a play-off spot of their own.
It’s another great example of the strong relationship between the two sporting tenants at Meadow Lane, with the double-header being a huge success in the past with football fans sticking around in droves to enjoy the XV-man game.
Speaking about the Play-Off pools, Nottingham's Director of Rugby Glenn Delaney said, "We're pleased with the draw. Both pools are going to be competitive, just as the regular season has been.
"It's a massive prize and all eight sides desperately want to win that Premiership place.
"Our group is tough and we've got to overcome the initial points advantage that Bristol and Welsh have.
"We know that previous results don't matter now though and we'll be working hard to ensure we hit the ground running."
Full Story www.thisisnottingham.co.uk
Nottingham Pool A fixtures:
Sat 10th March London Welsh Away 12.30pm
Sun 18th March Doncaster Knights Home 3pm ko
Sun 25th March Bristol Home 3pm ko
Fri 30th March Bristol Away 7.45pm ko
Sat 14th April Doncaster Knights Away 2.30pm ko
Sat 21st April London Welsh Home (venue TBC) 3pm ko
Albion must focus on winning all their home games in the Championship relegation play-offs.
That is the view of flanker Wayne Sprangle, who is confident Albion can avoid the drop to the third tier of English rugby.
"We have to make sure we come out on top, especially in our home games," he said. "A big focus has to be on our home games.
"We still start the play-offs two points above Esher, so we have to make sure we win all of our home games and then take what we can on the road."
Albion have not won away this season, but their home form has been good, winning six of their 11 fixtures at Brickfields.
Full Story www.thisisplymouth.co.uk
Plymouth Albion Relegation Pool Fixtures
Friday 9th March - Moseley, Away 7.30pm
Friday 16th March - Esher, Home 7:45 pm
Friday 23rd March - London Scottish, Home 7:45 pm
Friday 1st April - London Scottish, Away 2pm
Saturday April 14 - Esher, Away 3pm
Saturday April 21 – Moseley, Home 3pm
Andre Bester says the Titals will be fully on the gas by the time the play-offs start in a fortnight.
That's despite Titans having crashed 15-0 at home to second-bottom London Scottish on Saturday after fielding a largely second team.
"It is all a means to an end for us, our total priority is the promotion play-offs and we have to plan for them accordingly," he said.
"What position you are in the league doesn’t really matter because you have to play all of the best teams and you have to win those games. We will be ready for the play-offs when they come around."
Full Story www.rotherhamadvertiser.co.uk
Rotherham Titans Pool B fixtures
Sat 10th March - Bedford Blues, Home 2pm
Sunday March 18 - Leeds, Away 12:15pm
Sunday March 25 - Cornish Pirates, Away 3pm
Saturday March 31 - Cornish Pirates - Home 2pm
Saturday April 14 - Leeds - Home 3pm
Sat 10th April 21 - Bedford Blues, Away 3pm