Fylde’s last home game of the season v Loughborough at the Woodlands

Fylde welcome Loughborough Students to the Woodlands on Saturday (ko 3pm) for what is likely to be an exciting way to end what has been an otherwise disappointing home season at the Woodlands. Matches between the two clubs are usually high scoring affairs and with the promise of fine weather then this tradition is likely to continue. Whilst Fylde’s relegation fate was settled a few weeks ago, the Students are battling for their very lives against the same outcome.

Saturday’s contest is likely to have a decisive influence not only on Loughborough’s future next season but also on fellow relegation candidates Old Albanian, Hull Ionians and possibly even Rosslyn Park. It will be a tense day for all these clubs. On this Community Day for the club, Fylde have pride at stake and the coaches will be looking ahead to next season and assessing the playing requirements of National Two (North).

Overcoming the Students will be a very tough task for Fylde. Loughborough shade the bragging rights, with six wins in the last eleven fixtures between the two clubs. Results have generally favoured the home team and there have been some high scoring battles in the last six seasons. Fylde have dominated games at the Woodlands with victories by 56-22, 43-25, 30-28 and 32-21 in the last four seasons. The Lancastrians performances at the University’s ground have been much less successful, with the 21-0 loss in November just the latest defeat there.

As usual, the Students have a healthy scoring record this season but they have conceded a lot of points too. They have scored an average of 24 points in their 27 games to date but conceded 29.

The Students have been successful in patches, with uneven displays throughout the season. They had a wretched start to the campaign with seven defeats in their first eight matches. In October they started a strong run with five wins in seven fixtures but their form since Christmas has been mixed. They have tended to do well against clubs in the bottom half of the table, at home and away. Victories at Cambridge (9-14), Blackheath (21-24) and Esher (23-25) and excellent fighting draws at Ampthill (17-17), Hull Ionians (15-15) and Blackheath (34-34) suggests that they won’t fear visiting the Woodlands.

The Students have suffered a few heavy defeats, most notably in the North West at Caldy in a 71-14 scoreline. With the dangers of relegation becoming more real as the season progressed, they have stepped up their efforts in recent weeks with victories against Esher and last Saturday at home to Bishop’s Stortford (32-14).

Loughborough has been a centre for high performance rugby for generations. They have a superb physical and staffing infrastructure which is almost second to none, including excellent grass and 3G pitches, top quality coaching and medical support. They dominated university rugby for a long period but this scene has been much more competitive in recent years with the emergence of Hartpury College, Durham University and one or two others. However, Loughborough remains a hugely impressive rugby development system which is able to attract some of the best young talent who want a university education.

One of the great strengths of Loughborough’s set-up is the depth of player resources they can call on. There are squads for the BUCS (British Universities & College Sports) leagues as well as for their highest level players in National One. The latter squad has called on 50 players so far this season compared, for instance, to Fylde’s 35.

Since reaching level three (National One) in 2012-13, they have rather struggled in the bottom half of the table. An excellent first season when they finished 7th has given way subsequently to 12th, 12th, 13th and 11th spots in the division. Their battling qualities have been very evident during this period and although currently in the third relegation place they have a game in hand over their nearest rivals and a fighting chance to stay up.

Taming Loughborough’s very quick backline and athletic, mobile pack will be a serious challenge for the home side on the big Woodlands pitch in what is likely to be dry and fine conditions. Loughborough have developed another talented though relatively inexperienced playing squad this season. As is the nature of three year degree programmes, there is always a heavy turnover of students and the strength of the squad will obviously vary somewhat each year.

The Students backline features goal kicking playmaker and fly-half Owen Walters, currently their leading scorer with 171 points. Leading try scorer is the very quick winger Jack Tapley with 12 to date. Centre Oskar Hirskyj-Douglas (ex-Chinnor, Henley Hawks & Wasps Academy) has six tries so far, the same as fullback Tim Bitirim. Recent strengthening of the squad has seen the debut of experienced former England U’20s centre Charlie Thacker (ex-Leicester Tigers & Nottingham) and in the pack Freddie Tuilagi (ex-Leicester Tigers & Coventry). A second generation member of the famous Samoan rugby dynasty, Fred is the son of former Tigers wing Freddie, nephew of Henry, Alesana and Manu, and younger brother of Brian.

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Fylde make two changes in their starting line-up at DMP last Saturday. Adam Lewis and Ben Vernon are named at prop and no 8 respectively. Flanker Adam McCarthy joins the replacements.

Backrowers David Fairbrother and Willis Hopwood have both been ruled out through injury.

15 Tom Carleton; 14 Henry Hadfield, 13 Chris Briers, 12 Connor Wilkinson, 11 Jake Foster; 10 Greg Smith, 9 Greg Nicholls; 1 Adam Lewis, 2 Tom Burtonwood, 3 Mark Irving, 4 Matt Garrod, 5 Olli Parkinson, 6 Harlan Corrie, 7 Toby Harrison, 8 Ben Vernon.

16 Dan Richardson, 17 Ben Gregory, 18 Nick Ashcroft, 19 Adam McCarthy, 20 Luke Fowden.

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