Preview: Stags head to Oxford with a playoff spot firmly in their sights

Hemel Stags club crest
Hemel Stags club crest

Hemel Stags know that victory at Oxford tomorrow will guarantee them a Championship 1 playoff spot.

Oxford currently sit second from bottom of the Kingstone Press Championship One table, and are aiming to end their campaign on a high after defeating wooden spoonists South Wales Scorpions at home in a loop fixture last Sunday.

The victory was Oxford’s seventh of the season, following further home successes against London Skolars (19-12), the University of Gloucestershire All Golds (38-24) and South Wales (40-24), and away wins at York City Knights (24-16), South Wales (36-16) and London Skolars (31-24).

In reality it has been an inability to secure a sufficient number of bonus points in defeat that has ultimately cost the Iffley Road club any chance of reaching the end of season playoffs.

In fact, the 24-30 loss to Hemel Stags at the Pennine Way Stadium on May 25 was the only occasion in 12 season-long losses that they have managed to collected any additional points.

Conversely, Hemel have collected two points from a draw in their opening away fixture at Oldham (20-20), and five further bonus points to add to their eight victories, leaving them on the verge of reaching the end of season playoffs for a second season in succession.

For Hemel, talented loanee Steve Bannister is expected to retain his place after impressing last weekend, while Stags head coach Troy Perkins could be boosted by a return of prop James Howitt, providing he has recovered sufficiently from a broken metacarpal.

On the downside, Hemel’s assistant player coach, Jermaine Coleman is ruled out after suffering a hamstring strain against the University of Gloucestershire All Golds last week.

Hemel will qualify for the end of season play offs providing they win the game or lose by 12 points or less and collect a bonus point. Should the Stags lose heavily, they would then face an anxious 24 hours to see whether the All Golds can defeat Oldham in Lancashire to deny them fifth spot in the table and a playoff place.

Stags coach Troy Perkins said: “We know if we win we’re in the play-offs, but Oxford will want to finish their season on a high. The challenge is for us to build on last week’s performance.

“We’ll focus on our defence, and try to limit their attack.”

Hemel emerged 44-24 winners in a crunch clash with Gloucestershire All Golds last week.

And Perkins believes that display proved that Hemel can make an impact in the playoffs – if they qualify.

Perkins said: “It was good that in a must-win game, all the boys responded accordingly and we played some of the best stuff we have done all year.”

Hemel’s Jermaine Coleman is ruled out of the clash after suffering a hamstring strain against the All Golds.

Oxford coach Tony Benson, meanwhile, is seeking an eighth win of the season to finish 2014 on a high note.

Benson’s men have secured seven wins from their 19 league fixtures this year, but have been let down by claiming a bonus point in only one of their 12 defeats.

They are aiming to back up last week’s victory over South Wales Scorpions with another success on Saturday.