It's top v bottom on Saturday as National Two (North) league leaders Fylde travel to Grove Road to take on Manchester RUFC (ko 14.15). This is a rearranged match as the original fixture was frozen off in December. The clubs are also due to play each other on 16th April at the Woodlands.
The fate of Manchester RUFC over the past three or four seasons has been a cautionary story for all National League rugby clubs. This famous club is celebrating its 150th anniversary this season and has a rich history. It has a fine Mini-Junior section and through this is deeply rooted in its community. Its record in the early days of professional rugby was patchy but it advanced to level two in 1999/2000 as Fylde were relegated to level three and they maintained this for a few seasons before dropping to level 3 in 2004/5. The club had a fine season in 2007/8 and once again were elevated to the RFU's second tier becoming one of the top 28 clubs in England.
However, it found the move to National One, as it was then called, one step too many and had a very difficult 2008/9 campaign at the end of which it was relegated. Worse was to follow, far worse. With the squad fracturing and finance becoming problematic, Manchester had a disastrous 2009/10 season in the newly titled National One (level three) when they lost all 30 matches and were regularly hammered by opponents. They scored just 114 points in these matches and conceded 2626, a national league record. A young squad with very little senior rugby experience went through that campaign with their heads high and never threw in the towel despite the demoralising effect of continual defeats. Their brave attitude earned them Lancashire RFU's Senior Club of the Season award.
Relegated to National Two (North) this season, things haven't been too different except that the size of the defeats have been somewhat less. Almost two years ago, on 14th March 2009, the club had its last win, a 35-17 victory at home to Newbury. They have since lost 53 consecutive league games, scoring 241 points and conceding 3695 points at an average of 5 points for and 77 against. But to the great credit of the players and coaches they keep going and do their best in so many unequal contests. With a third successive relegation very likely, unless a tremendous change of fortunes happens, everyone concerned for the health of North West rugby will hope that the decline can be arrested next season at level 5. Another famous NW club Waterloo has suffered a similar fate and they have struggled to stabilise at that level – so stopping the rot is very hard to do.
Although Fylde & Manchester, both famous names in North West rugby, have played each other many, many times over their long histories, there have been just two matches between them in the last fifteen years. The last time they met was in March 2007 in a Lancashire Cup game at Grove Road when the home team triumphed by 46-29 in a highly entertaining affair which featured former Manchester player Nick Royle notching a hat trick of tries for Fylde. Prior to that, the clubs faced each other in a Tetley Bitter Cup game at the Woodlands in October 2000 which the visitors also won easily by 33-10. So these neighbouring North West clubs have never faced each other in league action since the onset of the professional era, an extraordinary fact caused by the yo-yoing of both clubs up and down the divisions.
The coach with perhaps the most difficult job in English rugby is Elaine Vassie who has been joined on the coaching front this season by Sale Sharks player Neil Briggs. Two local Fylde players know a fair bit about Manchester's recent struggles. Former Colts and students in the city, Tom Maden-Wilkinson and Danny Booth, have both featured in numerous Manchester line-ups last season and in the early part of 2010/11 but Tom has now returned to play for the Woodlands club. Perhaps the most loyal of the current squad of players is half-back and skipper Danny Carlton who has been one of the few regular players in what has seemed an almost ever changing line-up in the past two seasons. To illustrate the 'churn' of players in the squad, no less than 53 players have appeared in league matches to date this season. Sometimes in away matches they have struggled to field more than two or three replacements.
Other regulars this season have been forwards Gareth Stephens (prop), Yervand Agobiani (hooker) and Paul Farrington (lock). Prominent backs include wingers Matt Richards & Myles Hall, centre David Lewis and former Sedgley Park fly-half Dominic Kohler.
There's no doubt that the Manchester youngsters will raise themselves for the Fylde game and the visitors will have to work hard and not be complacent in any way if they want to take full points from the game.
Fylde make a few changes in their starting line-up with a few players being rested from recent exersions. In the backs, Craig Aikman is at scrum-half whilst Martin Wallwork is amongst the replacements and Jack Ward replaces Mike Waywell at centre. In the pack, Peter Altham starts at tighthead prop and Alan Holmes is at hooker. Alisdair Sutherland starts at flanker in place of the unavailable Steve McGinnis. Newcomer Cameron Thompson, formerly with Rossendale, is named amongst the replacements.
15 Richard Kenyon; 14 Nick Royle, 13 Stephen Briers, 12 Jack Ward, 11 Oliver Brennand; 10 Steve Collins, 9 Craig Aikman; 1 Alistair Livesey, 2 Alan Holmes, 3 Peter Altham, 4 Paul Arnold, 5 John Wells, 6 Mark Stephenson, 7 Alisdair Sutherland, 8 Sam Beaumont (c). Replacements: 16 Tony Thoma, 17 Tom Lavelle, 18 Jonny Roddam, 19 Cameron Thompson, 20 Martin Wallwork.
Meanwhile, Fylde officials are hoping for some noisy touchline support from travelling supporters to encourage the team in its gathering promotion campaign. Manchester's ground is at: Grove Park, Grove Lane, Cheadle Hulme, Cheadle, Cheshire SK8 7NB (tel: 0161 485 3733). Click here for a Google Maps representation of the ground.