NATIONAL TWO: BIRMINGHAM & SOLIHULL 53 CINDERFORD 3
A five-game unbeaten run, performances on a consistently upward trajectory and some of the best players in their position in the division, at least Birmingham & Solihull have put their early-season wobbles behind them and are finally upholding their end of the promotion bargain.
Whether the sport’s authorities reciprocate is another matter. Rugby Football Union Council consent for a 12-team Championship, afforded last Friday, has made the waters more muddy than your typical mid-winter Sharmans Cross pitch, although it has been confirmed that Bees will have to win National Two if they are to stand any chance of returning to the second tier.
Can they still do that? On this form probably, though they still need leaders Redruth to drop three more points before they come to Sharmans Cross Road on the last day of the campaign.
The Cornishmen part-obliged by missing out on a try bonus in their turgid 15-5 victory over Tynedale on Saturday, perhaps deflated by the news that Russell Earnshaw’s men had so adroitly defused what might have been a tinderbox of a fixture earlier in the day.
In the end a match that could have been all about the mayhem wrought by the returning Knight brothers, Dave and Paul, was something a cakewalk for a team that was so far superior to their opponents they might already claim to be in a different league.
With a pack of forwards that is suitably muscular for this level but also has that little bit of stardust required for the next, Mark Woodrow, the leading fly half in the division, and Simon Hunt, its leading scorer, there is no reason why Bees could not meet their nearest rivals on April 25 without having lost another game.
Having played all four of the leading contenders Cinderford are in a position sufficiently well-qualified to make comparisons of their relative merits. While Launceston and Cambridge were only able to manage two and four-point victories respectively, the current top two ran riot against the Forest of Dean outfit.
Both crossed the line eight times and broke the half-century mark. Redruth conceded two tries, Bees none.
As far as Paul Knight is concerned, the season will boil down to a battle between the top two, the outcome of which is too close to call.
“They are both very well-drilled sides with good, fit packs and some pace in the backs,” the former Bees scrum half said. “It’ll definitely be a race between the two of them but you have to remember Bees have lost twice and they need Redruth to lose at least once.
“Crucial for Bees will be how they cope without some important players when the Sevens starts. They lost Russell Earnshaw last season and he’s a real team leader whether he wants to be or not. This time they could be without Woodrow and Hunt too. That will be a real test for them.”
That comes at the end of the month and the start of next, when Bees face rock bottom Waterloo and mid-table Tynedale.
Those fixtures could be worse - last season they had to go to Launceston for a relegation showdown without their head coach and lost horribly.
But they are not battling through an arduous First Division campaign with a tiny squad this time. Bees have a fluency to their play that is unrivalled in this division and the manner in which they kept the ball alive and away from potentially troublesome breakdown confrontations will stand them in good stead.
Cinderford simply had no answer to the pace or angles posed by their hosts, the only surprise was it took 16 minutes for Hunt to score the first try of the match. With the game tied at 3-3 Woodrow poked through an inviting grubber his winger could not ignore. The indefatigable Rob Connolly grabbed the second and Hunt the third to send Bees in at the break with an 18-3 lead.
If Cinderford were on the back foot in the first period, they barely registered their presence in the second. Ben Phillips took Woodrow’s delightful inside pass over for the bonus-point score before Cameron Mitchell showed admirable pace on the hour to race home from 70 metres.
Ryan Tomlinson scooted over a minute from the end and then Hunt completed the game and his second hat-trick of the season to sustain the promotion bandwagon.
BIRMINGHAM & SOLIHULL: Spee; Hunt, Young, Mitchell, Culpin (Tomlinson 64); Woodrow, Brown (Petty, 56); Long, Phillips (Preece, 60), Voisey (Davies, 56), Pammenter (Clayton, 56), Orgee, Connolly, Earnshaw, Jenner.
CINDERFORD: Hart; Macrae, D Knight (Trigg, 79), Stevenson, Winterbottom; Burns (Wilson, 60), P Knight; Kennedy, Hall (Matthews, 49), Deacon (Meadows, 49), Fidler, Wright, Evans, Thompson (McNeil, 45), James.
Referee: Paul Holmes (RFU).