Friday 9 March 2012
Pool A Doncaster v Bristol 19:45
Pool C Moseley v Plymouth Albion 19:30
Saturday 10 March 2012
Pool B Cornish Pirates v Leeds Carnegie 14:30
Pool C Esher v London Scottish 15:00
Pool A London Welsh v Nottingham 12:30
Pool B Rotherham Titans v Bedford 14:00
Pool A - Regular season 'winners' Bristol go into the play- offs as strong favourites to qualify for the semi- finals as one of the two best- placed sides from Pool A.
Liam Middleton's men finished seven points clear at the top of the table and take three points forward into the play- offs as a result. Their record against the three other sides in the Pool is also pretty impressive, taking 25 points out of a possible 30 from home and away games against London Welsh, Nottingham and Doncaster.
The West Country side won five out of the six games against their opponents during the regular season, doing the double over Nottingham and Doncaster and only narrowly failing to beat London Welsh at Old Deer Park. London Welsh, who contested the semi- finals in the first two years of the Championship under its current format, picked up 20 points from games against their pool opponents, while Nottingham got 14 and Doncaster zero.
London Welsh carry two points into the play- offs as a reward for finishing fourth in the regular season, Nottingham get one and Doncaster, as the lowest ranked team, start with nothing. But the Knights could give their chances of progressing further a major shot in the arm if they manage to end a three- game losing sequence and beat Director of Rugby Brett Davey's former club Bristol.at Castle Park on Friday night.
London Welsh are at home to Nottingham in the other Pool A fixture taking place on the opening weekend.
Pool B - Rotherham will fancy their chances of causing an upset and become the first side outside of the top four from the regular season to qualify for the RFU Championship semi- finals.
The Titans finished in seventh place in Stage 1, which means they fail to carry any points forward into the play- offs. However Andre Bester's men seem to reserve their best form for games against fellow promotion contenders, claiming an impressive 65% of their overall total points tally against top eight rivals - better than Bristol (61%), Leeds (55%), London Welsh (52%), Cornish Pirates (51%), Bedford (46%) and Nottingham and Doncaster (both 42%).
The Titans, though, would arguably have been better off as the lowest ranked team in Pool A rather than Pool B, as their record against Bristol, London Welsh and Nottingham stacks up more favourably than their head- to- head stats against fellow Pool B sides, Bedford, Cornish Pirates and Leeds. Leeds (18) top the standings in that respect followed by Bedford (17), Cornish Pirates (15) and Rotherham (12).
Leeds beat Bedford home and away during the regular season and chalked up home wins against the Pirates and Rotherham, who they meet at Headingley on Sunday March 18th in a Yorkshire derby televised live by Sky. But their opening game away to the Pirates threatens to set the tone for their entire play- off campaign and Diccon Edwards' men will be looking for a much improved performance from the one when they last visited the Duchy: a 52-10 defeat on 24th September.
Pool C - Esher go into the Pool C relegation play- offs having carried fewer points over than their rivals from Stage 1. London Scottish, Moseley and Plymouth won six games during the regular season and are rewarded with six play- points as a result, while Esher start with four points. But three of those four victories came on consecutive weekends in the final few weeks of the regular season, meaning Mike Schmid's men go into the battle for survival with plenty of momentum behind them.
Psychologically they might have the upper hand, too, as two of those victories came against relegation rivals London Scottish and Plymouth. London Scottish are in the best position in terms of the head- to- head standings from the regular season. The Exiles claimed 19 points out of a possible 30 in home and away games against Moseley, Plymouth and Esher, while Moseley picked up 15, Plymouth 14 and Esher just 9.
Home form would appear to be key to Plymouth's chance of staying up with each of their three wins against their Pool C rivals during the regular season coming at 'fortress' Brickfields. Indeed, all six of their wins throughout the course of 22 rounds of action came at home, meaning it is vital that they kick off with a victory against Esher when the Surrey side visits on 16th March. First up, though, Albion have a trip to Moseley to negotiate while the other game on the opening weekend in Pool C sees Esher entertain London Scottish.
Doncaster Knights - Brett Davey has named a Doncaster Knights side unchanged from their last outing against Bristol Rugby as they take on the league leaders again at Castle Park in their opening Pool A promotion play-off clash.
The DOR's decision to experiment with new positions for several players means that regular flanker Latu Makaafi will start at centre for the second time, whilst prolific winger Michael Keating will occupy the full-back spot.
The experienced Mike Whitehead will start again at fly-half with promising youngster Gareth Quinn-McDonogh named as a replacement as the Knights target the large scalp of the West Country side.
At openside flanker David Bradford, a try-scorer against Bristol two weeks ago, - makes the starting line-up as Davey selects an attack minded side.
The bench sees new signing and youngest squad member Tomas Francis handed his third selection, with captain Chris Hallam also among the subs giving Davey the chance to shuffle his cards.
15 Michael Keating 14 Dougie Flockhart 13 Latu Makaafi 12 PJ Gidlow (C)
11 Ben Toft 10 Mike Whitehead 9 Michael Heaney
1 Stuart Corsar 2 Jack Yeandle 3 Royce Burke-Flynn 4 Chris Planchant
5 Dominic Parsons 6 Michael Noone 7 David Bradford 8 Adam Kettle
16 Tom Francis 17 Tom Davies 18 Alex Brown 19 Glen Kenworthy
20 Zack Farivarz 21 Chris Hallam 22 Gareth Quinn-McDonogh
Bristol - Liam Middleton has revealed how he had to hold several selection meetings this week before finally settling on the 22 players who will kick off the Championship play-offs for Bristol, says the Bristol Evening Post.
The head coach has reassured those who will not face Doncaster tomorrow evening that they are good enough to be in his starting XV, but said he could offer them no guarantees they will get their chance in the coming weeks.
"It's been incredibly tough this week," said Middleton. "We've had several meetings these last ten days and it has been difficult. But if we want to build the club towards where we want it to go, that's what you have to have. You have to have quality competition in most, if not all, positions.
Full Story www.thisisbristol.co.uk
Jason Harris-Wright returns from long-term absence to take his place among the replacements ahead of Bristol's trip to Doncaster.
The hooker, who has been missing since early December, will provide cover for Ross Johnston who recovers from a hand injury to start in the front row.
Liam Middleton's side kick off their RFU Championship Pool A campaign at Castle Park, having beaten the Knights 52-26 in the last game of the regular season.
Matt Williams and Tristan Roberts are named in the starting line up against their former club, while Will Helu is moved into the midfield to partner Luke Eves.
Skipper Iain Grieve is named at no. 8 and will lead an experienced pack including Roy Winters, Darren Crompton and another former Knight, Glen Townson.
On the replacements bench, Middleton opts for a four forwards and three backs split.
Jon Goodridge; Jack Tovey, Will Helu, Luke Eves, Matt Williams
Tristan Roberts, Ruki Tipuna; Darren Crompton, Ross Johnston, Jason Hobson
Glen Townson, Roy Winters, Josh Ovens, Marco Mama, Iain Grieve (c).
Jason Harris-Wright, Wayne Thompson, Mark Irish, Henry Vandergla
Dan Montagu, Tom Slater, Matthew Jones.
Moseley - After consecutive matches against the top three teams in the League, Moseley will be expecting a similar stiff challenge from Plymouth Albion in this opening match in the Group C play-offs.
In the regular season both matches had tight finishes, with just one score separating the teams on each occasion.
Moseley expect to field a similar side to that which played a fortnight ago in Penzance against Cornish Pirates where they went down spiritedly.
Two significant changes are in the pack where Neil Mason and David Lyons both start at the expense of Michael Maltman and Dan Sanderson.
1. Marshall Gadd, 2. Adam Caves, 3. Craig Voisey, 4. David Lyons
5. Paul Spivey, 6.Neil Mason, 7. Michael Ellery, 8.Chevvy Pennycook
9. Sam Brown, 10.Brad Davies, 11. Brad Hunt, 12.Andy Reay
13. Greg King, 14. Anthony Carter, 15. Ollie Thomas
16. Anthony O'donnell, 17. Colin Quigley, 18. Richard Stott, 19. Ben Pons
20. Michael Maltman, 21. William Robinson, 22 Ryan De La Harpe.
Plymouth Albion - Nat Saumi has urged people not to write off his Plymouth Albion team in the Championship relegation play-offs just because of the way they finished the regular campaign, writes Sarah Raine in the Herald.
Albion were humiliated 41-17 by bottom club and drop rivals Esher in their final league game.
But Saumi insists Albion, who have only won two league games since sacking former chairman of rugby Graham Dawe in mid-November, have got over that loss and after a major squad heart-to-heart, the team are all ready to go in the play-offs, which begin on Friday with a trip to Moseley.
Full Story www.thisisplymouth.co.uk
Jon Vickers will make his first Championship start for Plymouth Albion tonight when they begin their relegation play-off campaign with an away trip to Moseley.
The hooker has missed most of the season with a neck injury, but he has recovered at just the right time for Albion.
Ironically, Vickers' only other competitive start for Albion came against Moseley at Billesley Common in a British & Irish Cup match in September.
As well as Vickers, Albion also welcome back captain Sean-Michael Stephen, prop Ryan Hopkins and flanker Wayne Sprangle to their starting line-up.
There is also a play-off start for 18-year-old winger Jack Arnott after he impressed Albion coach Nat Saumi in the club's final two regular season matches.
15 Sione Tu'ipulotu, 14 James Love, 13 Paul Bailey, 12 Bevon Armitage,
11 Jack Arnott, 10 Paul Roberts, 9 Ruairi Cushion
1 David Morton, 2 Jon Vickers, 3 Ryan Hopkins, 4 Tyler Hotson
5 Sean-Michael Stephen (capt), 6 Herbie Stupple, 7 Wayne Sprangle, 8 Aaron Carpenter.
16 Tyson Lewis, 17 Steve Johns, 18 Jack Andrew, 19 Rob Dugard,
20 Rupert Freestone, 21 Addison Lockley, 22 Sam Hocking.
Cornish Pirates - Leeds were blown away on their regular season visit to Cornwall in September, conceding seven tries in a 52-10 rout, writes Dick Straughan in the Western Morning News.
A Mike Stephenson try three minutes from the end of the reverse fixture at Headingley gave Leeds the narrowest of winning margins as they pipped the Pirates 14-13, but their Mennaye nightmare clearly hurt them.
The Pirates go into the play-offs on a seven game winning streak which has seen them claim the notable scalps of Bristol and London Welsh and High Performance Manager Chris Stirling commented: "The boys have all had a few days off to prepare for the play-offs and have come back pretty focused.
"We will do a full week's training ahead of the Leeds game but in terms of selection we still don't have a lot of choices, especially in the backs."
Full Story www.thisiscornwall.co.uk
When Leeds played in front of Sky TV cameras at the Mennaye Field in September, the Cornish Pirates put on an exhibition of rugby that showed all but total dominance against their Yorkshire opponents
Indeed, the 52-10 result, was one that surely nobody would have predicted, and at the end the Yorkshire visitors looked a little shell shocked, and perhaps understandably so.
As for the return match in Stage 1, played at the Headingley Carnegie Stadium in December, everyone knew a much sterner test lay in wait, and so it proved. Despite the Pirates leading 13-9 at the break, in a game that was as closely and physically fought as had been expected, nearing the end there was a sense that Leeds would sneak a victory, and they did, with a try scored by a delighted Michael Stephenson.
Saturday's play-offs opener promises to be a fascinating encounter and despite the Pirates being hampered by injuries, especially in the back-line, the selection is still a strong one.
Speaking ahead of the game, high performance manager Chris Stirling commented: "We will have to play well to beat Leeds but having had a few days off the boys have come back pretty focused and with their impressive attitude it's very rare that we play poorly against such good opposition."
R. Cook, T. Kessell, G. Pointer, T. Cooper, M. Evans
A. Penberthy, G. Cattle (capt), K. Marriott, C. Morgan
D. Ewers, I. Nimmo. M. Smith, A. Paver, D. Ward, C. Rimmer.
P. Andrew, T. Cowan-Dickie, L. Fairbrother, P. Burgess
B. Maidment, C. Thomas, A. Suniula.
Referee: Paul Knowles (RFU)
Assistants: Michael Tutty & Richard Parker-Sedgemore
Assessor: Jerry Wallis
4th Official: Andy Bickle
Leeds Carnegie Head Coach Diccon Edwards has named an unchanged side for the opening game of the Championship Play offs at Cornish Pirates.
Edwards has retained the same team that won at London Welsh on the final day of the regular season however there are four changes on the bench.
David Young replaces Mo Mustafa, whilst Tom Denton returns from suspension and Danny Paul is back from injury. Craig Hampson is the final change as he comes in for Robbie Shaw.
Only six players in the starting line up were in the starting XV when Leeds travelled to Cornish Pirates at the start of the season and lost 52-10.
15. Stevie McColl 14. Michael Stephenson 13. Iain Thornley 12. Scott Barrow
11. Pete Lucock 10. Joe Ford 9. Will Cliff
1. Sam Lockwood 2. Andy Titterrell (c) 3. Halani Aulika 4. Jon Pendlebury
5. Dan Hemingway 6. Ed Williamson 7. Jacob Rowan 8. Ryan Burrows
16. Phil Nilsen 17. Gareth Denman 18 David Young 19 Tom Denton
20 Danny Paul 21 Craig Hampson 22 Jordan Davies
Nick Westby, writing in the Yorkshire Post says: Leeds Carnegie's preparations for the most important phase of the season have been disrupted by a club versus country row.
The Headingley side will contest the first two weeks of their promotion play-off campaign without three of their star players who are on England Under-20s duty.
RFU regulations state that England have first call on any player outside the Premiership, and while Edwards is not questioning their adherence to those guidelines, he does believe they could have demonstrated equality across the board.
Edwards left his position with the England Under-20s last summer to take charge of his former club, having encountered a similar scenario last year when he adopted a policy that one rule applied to all clubs, not just those in the Premiership.
Full Story www.yorkshirepost.co.uk
Esher Mike Schmidis backing revitalised Esher to handle the heat of the relegation play-offs and secure their place in the Championship next season.
Esher take on local rivals London Scottish at home on Saturday in the first play-offs clash brimming with confidence after finishing the regular season with three straight wins.
The showdown is the first of six home and away games between Esher, Scottish, Plymouth and Moseley to determine who drops into National One.
Esher's injury-ravaged side looked doomed for most of the campaign but the return to fitness of key players has seen them claim four wins in the last seven weeks.
That gives them four points going into the play-offs, just two behind their rivals, but with the momentum firmly behind Schmid's side.
Now Schmid believes his side can avoid the drop with the psychological advantage of beating both Scottish and Plymouth in recent week.
Director of Rugby Schmid said: “The boys are very positive that we can get through this and be successful and build. They are looking forward to it.
“There is a fantastic mentality within the squad and our leadership and character is reality starting to show.
“We have got six World Cup finals coming at us but the big thing is to keep to the game plan, no matter whether we're winning or losing. We have just got to keep doing what we know is successful.
“I think virtually for the first time this year we are leaving players out that we actually can't believe we would be leaving on the bench. We're at a stage when we are at our healthiest all season so we don't have any excuses.
“The good thing is we've proved what works over the last few weeks but we've got to make sure that under pressure we execute properly.
“We haven't really talked a lot about the pressure. It's just another game. Everyone knows what's at stake but we're just purely looking at process, how we do things and how we can improve, what we need to do to be successful.
“You saw us earlier in the season chasing games and playing high-risk rugby at times to get that magical try whereas over the last few weeks we have built scores. We now have the confidence in what we are doing.”
Esher finished ninth in the Championship last season and topped the relegation play-off group with four wins from six but Schmid believes three wins could be enough to survive.
He said: “Anyone who wins four out of six will definitely we through and probably three of the six as well because someone will probably only win two.
“You need a bit of luck with injuries, with the bounce of the ball, with refereeing decisions but you kind of earn that with how you are playing.
“The good thing is we have beaten two out of the other three teams very recently so there is a bit of confidence from that.
“But we have been playing under pressure for months, trying to get our first win and trying to get our game together and trying to get players back off the injury list. But the boys are through that now so I'm not sure of that is going to bother them whether we win or lose our first game.
“You lose your first one you're not out of it; win and you're not through it. Having said that, this will be our first chance all year to get off the bottom.
“ It's at home so we are hoping to get a good crowd here because the guys respond to that and the boys deserve that with the way they have played recently.
“It's a huge game for me, the players and the club. But if we win it, we're not done. But what we did really well last year in the play-offs was going away and winning our first game.
“I think by doing that it took the pressure off and these play-offs are about handling pressure, playing with pressure and closing games out when it's tight and I would expect most games to be tight."
Esher will lose around £300,000 in RFU funding if they are relegated and Schmid is desperate to avoid the drop so he can keep his best players and strengthen in a bid to avoid the relegation lottery in the future.
He said: “If you want to build and improve you have got to retain your core players and as a part-time club a lot of that is based about financial resources inevitably.
“The club's vision is to be a sustainable Championship rugby club. If we can keep this group of players healthy and keep them together, and add some key people in key positions, we can achieve that.
“If we are shooting for that vision, it's massive that we stay in the league. If you go down you lose a huge amount of funding, over £300,000, so for a club like us that's a huge figure so the repercussions are that you lose a number of players.”
Schmid admits he is grateful to the Esher board for the faith they have shown in him this season despite spending the entire campaign rooted to the foot of the table.
He added: “For me the fantastic thing is that the board are very understanding of what we are able to achieve, what our resources are, both financial and human, and of course all our issues with injuries.
“They have talked to people, myself and players included, just to make sure that everything is on the right track and if anything can be done.
“Is there pressure on me? There is always pressure on me as coach whether you are winning or losing but the board have been brilliant and as supportive as they possibly can be.
“Nobody likes to front a losing side but thankfully they are great rugby people and understand the game and that was one of the reasons I chose this club in the first place. In today's coaching environment you need that.
“Hopefully the last six years have been very successful for the club with me here, which may or may not buy you a bit more time than otherwise would have been the case.
“I think it goes to the character of the guys who are on the top that they have faith in the players and the coaches. We owe them and the only way we can repay them is by playing our best rugby now.”
15 Ross Chisholm 14 Seb Stegmann 13 Tom Cheeseman 12 Arran Cruickshanks
11 Phil Mackenzie 10 Mark Atkinson 9 Clive Stuart-Smith
1 Dave Millard 2 James Campbell 3 Ingacio Elosu 4 Ian Kench
5 James Inglis 6 Sam Stitcher (Capt.) 7 Peter Synnott 8 Mike Macfarlane
16 Will Collier (FR) 17 Tom Alexander 18 Matt Symons 19 Kevin Corrigan (FR)
20 Nicky Little 21 Luke Daniels 22 Patrick O'Grady
Full Story www.esherrugby.com
London Scottishmake their third visit of the season to close rivals Esher in the relegation pool. Both sides will be determined to get off to a flyer and Scottish will be determined to gain revenge for their recent loss at Molesey Road.
The 15-0 win away at Rotherham Titans in the last game of the regular season has given Scottish vital momentum going into the game and ensured they finished top of the relegation pool.
Three changes in the back line see Simon Amor, John Bordiss and Dan Mugford come into the side whilst the pack has four changes from the Titans match.
Nick Auterac and Adam Kwasnicki join Aaron Liffchak in the front row, whilst Alex Karonias partners Josh Thomas Brown in the second row.
Adam Kleeberger and Mark Bright welcome James Kellard into the back row.
15. John Bordiss 14. Agustin Gosio 13. Ryan Westren 12. Charlie Hayter
11. Gerard Mullen 10. Dan Mugford 9. Simon Amor
8. Mark Bright 7. James Kellard 6. Adam Kleeberger 5. Josh Thomas Brown
4. Alex Karonias 3. Aaron Liffchak 2. Adam Kwasnicki 1. Nick Auterac
16. Alex Clarke 17. Tom Standfield 18. Alex Mackenzie 19. Ben Thomas
20. Matt Heeks 21. James Brown 22. Stuart Peel
London Welsh - Having reached the play-offs for the last two seasons, head coach Lyn Jones will be keen to take the club at least one step further this time around.
There's more an element of Deja vu about Saturday's clash, which is a repeat last season's high scoring play-off opener between the two clubs, played out in front of the live Sky Sports cameras.
It was the Exiles that came out on top 48-26 at Old Deer Park, thanks to tries from Nick Runciman, Jon Mills, Simon Whatling, Michael Hills, Hudson Tonga'uiha and Waisea Luveniyali, with David Jackson crossing for two of Nottingham's four tries.
Welsh had already booked their semi-final place by the time they travelled to the Memorial Stadium in round 6, but still came out on top 27-13.
So far this season, it's one win a piece between the sides. The Exiles won 34-23 at Old Deer Park back in September, but needed a late Ed Jackson try to make sure of the win after David Jackson had crossed at the other end to make for a nervy finish.
But the Green and Whites got their revenge at the Memorial Stadium with a 26-10 victory. James Arlidge kicking 21 points for the home side, while Ed Jackson crossed a late consolation for the Exiles.
Nottingham don't have to go back too far for their last victory at Old Deer Park. That came in February 2011, when they won 22-13 thanks to intercept try by Cesar Sempere and James Arlidge's charge down try.
15. Alex Davies, 14. Nick Scott, 13. James Lewis, 12. Simon Whatling
11. Ashley Smith, 10. Gordon Ross ©, 9. Rob Lewis
1. Shawn Pittman, 2. Saul Nelson, 3. Greg Bateman, 4. Adam Brown
5. Gary Johnson, 6. Lee Beach, 7. Mike Denbee, 8. Ed Jackson.
16. Tom French, 17. Dan George, 18. James Tideswell, 19. Matt Corker
20. Ben Russell, 21. Jack Moates, 22. Will Hurrell.
Nottingham director of rugby Glenn Delaney says he faced the hardest selection dilemma of his career with the Green and Whites ahead of Saturday's play-off game against London Welsh.
Having rotated more than 30 players through his starting side in the final four regular season fixtures, Delaney was spoiled for options to unleash on the Exiles at Old Deer Park.
"Right across the team, in every position it was hard to make the call," he said.
"With the depth comes incredible competition for spots in the XV. What we have is the strongest side available, one that is a mix of experience, ball runners, ball carriers, guys that will make tackles and those with explosive talent."
Overlooking David Jackson is just one call that Delaney pained over, with the 29-year-old scoring a brace of tries against Bedford in Nottingham's final regular season fixture.
The selection of Craig Hammond in the second row will see the captain surpass Jackson as the clubs most capped league player.
But with full-back Andrew Savage performing so strongly alongside Tim Streather and Jack Cobden, the impressive recent return of the 11-year veteran from a broken shoulder wasn't enough to break in into the 22 against the Exiles.
"That back three has been performing for the past two months, they have been good week in and week out," Delaney said.
"Jacko has come back well, but at this point in time it's hard to make a change from those who have got the business done for us."
Jackson missed out on joining the bench players with Delaney keen to go for heavy duty options of hooker Jimmy Stevens and props Johnny Harris and Ben Prescott.
"This is going to be a physical game and the bench is the back-up we need to give us the impetus," Delaney said.
"This is a very high working team that will have the ability to keep the rate up in very intense periods."
When it came to leadership choices, Delaney decided to go all out with Hammond named alongside Brent Wilson in the starting XV for the first time since early January.
The duo has shared captaincy over the past month, with Wilson taking over when Hammond has been employed as a strike weapon off the bench.
"It goes without saying that Craig is the club captain, but Brent has shown important qualities and a leadership role to play on the field," Delaney said.
1 Matt Parr 2 Joe Duffy 3 Ryan Bower 4 Craig Hammond
5 Nic Rouse 6 Sione Kalamafoni 7 Brent Wilson 8 Filipo Levi
9 Sean Romans 10 James Arlidge 11 Jack Cobden 12 Juan Socino
13 Ayoola Erinle 14 Tim Streather 15 Andrew Savage
16 Jimmy Stevens 17 Jonny Harris 18 Ben Prescott 19 Alex Shaw
20 Phil Eggleshaw 21 Finlay Barnham 22 Kieran Hallet.
Rotherham Titans have endured a tough week's training in anticipation of a very physical battle with Bedford Blues on Saturday; kick-off 2pm at Clifton Lane.
Andre Bester has picked arguably his strongest side as he hopes to kick-start the play-off campaign with a victory. In stage 1 of the season Rotherham beat Bedford 40-32 at Clifton Lane, collecting the try bonus point along the way. Something similar would be most welcome, but Bedford who finished runners-up in the league will no doubt provide stiff opposition.
Of the 31 previous encounters between the sides, it is Bedford who holds the upper hand with 18 victories. However, one of Rotherham Titans greatest achievements came against Bedford 12 years ago.
Rotherham beat Bedford over a two-legged play-off to attain Premiership rugby for the first time.
Although a great memory for Rotherham, that is in the past and if they want to realise their ambition of a third tilt in the Premiership, the hard work starts on Saturday.
Looking ahead to Saturday's encounter Titans head coach Andre Bester explained, “This is crunch time! This is what we have been building up to all season and we won't shy away from the importance of it.
“It is the first group of matches that is important, not just the Bedford game. The first three matches are very important in terms of positioning yourself. Nothing is terminal, but it can become terminal if we have issues against Bedford and do not respond in the right way.
“We need to put ourselves in a position after the first 3 play-off matches so we give ourselves a chance of making the semi-final. That's the only thing that we are working towards; giving ourselves a window of opportunity to have a crack at this. That's why during the season we rotated heavily and why we planned things the way we did. We now have a fully fit squad that's eager to get out there and give it their best shot.
“We've pick the full team for this game and we've worked terribly hard for what we want to do. We know more than anything else it's going to be a mental challenge, the top six inches will determine the outcome.
Our intensity has picked up massively since the London Scottish game and all the players are aware this is the business end of the season.”
15 Stephen Hamilton, 14 Tom Foden, 13 Dave McCall, 12 Pale Nonu
11 Shane Monahan, 10 Garry Law, 9 Jimmy Williams,
1 Shane Cahill, 2 Dan Baines, 3 Ben Hooper, 4 Sam Dickinson (Capt.)
5 Barney Maddison, 6 Robin Copeland, 7 Sean Dougall, 8 Semisi Taulava.
16 Ted Stagg, 17 Jamie Kilbane, 18 Talite Vaioleti, 19 Adrian Griffiths
20 Carl Kirwan, 21 Matt Rhodes, 22 Byron Godfrey.
Bedford - The real business starts on Saturday for Bedford Blues as they make the trip up the M1 to face Rotherham at Clifton Lane.
When the two sides met in Yorkshire back in September, the Blues let a 22-9 half-time lead slip away and ended up being on the receiving end of a 40-32 defeat while the reverse fixture at Goldington Road ended with Bedford picking up a narrow 24-23 win.
The Blues head into the game without forward duo Mike Howard (ankle) and Gregor Gillanders (hamstring) while wing trio Dave Vincent, Mark Kohler and Handre Schmidt all miss out although the latter two are have recently been declared fit. In better news, Sacha Harding has recovered from his neck injury and takes a place on the bench.
Looking ahead to Saturday's game, Director of Rugby Mike Rayer said: “This is a really tough start to a really tough pool, but it was always going to be difficult no matter who we were grouped with. However, we are in really good shape physically, we've won our last three games and we are really looking forward to the challenge ahead.
“Finishing second in the league was very important to us and we have three points to carry into the play-offs which may prove to be vital in such a tight looking group.
“Rotherham used the final few games of the season to switch things around, try new combinations and perhaps experiment a little but they have named a very strong team for this weekend. Clifton Lane is always a difficult place to go as we learnt in the league this season and last but those results don't matter, it's what ahead that does.
“Rotherham are a very well organized side and are, and always have been, a notoriously difficult side to beat at Clifton Lane. We have to meet the physical challenge they will bring head on, if we can do that we will give ourselves a chance of winning.
The Blues make five changes to the team which defeated Nottingham in the final game of the regular season with Josh Bassett, Sam Walsh and Sean Tomes returning to the starting line-up while Henry Staff reverts to outside centre and Ollie Dodge switches to the right wing
15. James Pritchard (c) 14. Ollie Dodge 13. Henry Staff 12. Ian Vass
11. Josh Bassett 10. Jake Sharp 9. Luke Baldwin
1. Sam Walsh 2. Neil Cochrane 3. Phil Boulton 4. Sean Tomes
5. Paul Tupai 6. Alex Rae 7. Darren Fox 8. Jonathon Fisher
16. Chris Locke, 17. Nico Steenkamp, 18. Don Barrell, 19. Sacha Harding
20. Darryl Veenendaal, 21. Jamie Lennard. 22. Brendan Burke
This season's Championship title push is the most open for years, according to Bedford Blues full-back , James Pritchard,
“This is the most open I've seen National One and now The Championship since I've been here. It's anyone's for the taking,” he said.
“Every team out there has shown that on their day they can turn anyone over so we know we have to rock up every week.”
“As the weather gets better that's going to help us.”
Full Story www.bedfordshire-news.co.uk