IN ONE of the most action-packed weekends in the history of the league, a series of crucial matches today and on Monday provide the perfect wrapping for all the excitement and spectacle of the Teesside University NYSD Fifteens which take place tomorrow.
The Richmond ground provides the glorious setting for the finals day of the region's first and most popular coloured clothing jamboree which promises to be the best yet, with Sky likely to be filming the event to produce a feature on club cricket.
The club have put a tremendous amount of effort into providing a great day out for all the family with a range of side shows, bouncy castles, a boxing exhibition, kwik cricket, a bowling speed gun competition and plenty of food and drink choices for the discerning palate.
Of course the main events are the three matches, with Normanby Hall tackling Maltby in the Division Two final at 11am, Saltburn facing Sedgefield at 1.30 in the Division One clash, and Bishop Auckland playing Great Ayton in the showpiece Premier Division game at 4.30.
For Bishops, the Fifteens will provide a pleasant diversion from the intensity of league action, given their parlous position at the foot of the table.
Currently 18 points from safety, they face matches against the top two over the weekend, beginning at Kingsway this afternoon against title favourites Marton, and ending at Park Drive on Monday when they play the current leaders.
Bishops, like Marton, expect to be at full strength for the league games, however Hartlepool will be playing without skipper Jack Wilkinson, who gets married today and will consequently miss the rest of the season. Marc Symington picks up the captaincy baton in his absence as Pool begin their programme with a match against another of the relegation haunted strugglers, Northallerton.
Town's double will test their nerve as they follow today's home game with a trip to Billingham. They show one change, with Joe Clarkson having succumbed to the lures of the Leeds Festival, Scot Watson replaces him.
The other team in the relegation mire, Marske, have two home matches to look forward to, with Darlington at Windy Hill Lane first, and Barnard Castle following. The Seasiders have selection issues with Josh Carroll and Col Haslett both working, Joe Wing at the popfest, and Jordan Carroll at a wedding. Jon Nicholls returns from honeymoon to plug one of the gaps.
Middlesbrough thought they were clear of the relegation trapdoor, but the heavy defeat by Marton last week reawakened their fears.
They face a tricky trip to the SCG where Stokesley's new pro, South African paceman Gurshwin Rabie, has taken 11 wickets in his first two appearance there, and then they entertain neighbours Normanby Hall on Monday, when former player Brett Roberts returns from suspension. Will Wyatt will also feature for a strengthened Hall team.
Former leaders Richmondshire need other teams to slip up if they are to reduce the 21-point gap to the top of the league, but they are at full strength when they entertain Billingham this afternoon, and for their trip to Great Ayton for the second match.
The Division One title race also reaches fever pitch as the top two clash at Mandale Bottoms.
The one ray of hope for the teams chasing Thornaby and Sedgefield is that the pair also have to meet again before the end of the season, which could conceivably let in one of the others.
However, the 33-point cushion over third-placed Blackhall would suggest today's game is all about who wins the championship, rather than who gets promoted.