Fylde welcomes Old Albanian to the Woodlands on Saturday (ko 3pm), a meeting of the bottom two clubs in National One. Neither are statistically confirmed as relegated yet and, additionally, there is the important aspect of pride at stake. So the game will be fiercely contested.
OA have had a very mixed season, with some narrow defeats (Ampthill 24-28, Coventry 19-21, Bishop’s Stortford 14-18) mixed up with some fine wins (v Ionians 26-36 & 50-28, home to DMP 33-31 & Esher 29-14) and a couple of heavy losses – 0-58 at home to Rosslyn Park on the opening day of the season and at promotion chasing Blackheath 31-3. In their last game they put in an excellent performance to beat Bishop’s Stortford by 36-17. Inconsistency and numerous injuries have characterised their season. The shape of the starting XV has changed dramatically from the opening game to their last fixture with only five players started both fixtures.
The two clubs have played each other on just nine occasions, with the Old Boys holding the bragging rights with five wins against Fylde’s four, including a double win last season. Back in 2013-14, these teams shared an amazing 166 points in the two fixtures, both Fylde victories, 50-30 at the Woodlands and 41-45 in St Albans.
OAs have been one of the new meritocrats in the National Leagues, battling their way up the divisions with successive promotions between 2010-12 to reach their highest ever level in N1. They have benefited from close links to Premiership giants Saracens.
What of the long history of the Old Albanian club? St Albans School, founded in 948AD and the second oldest school in the country, was the birthplace in 1924 of OARFC, five years later than Fylde’s formation. A group of former pupils with an urge to continue playing rugby together began the Club and fifty years later it became fully open to all comers, ran six sides and enjoyed fixtures with other clubs in Hertfordshire, Essex, Beds, Bucks and London.
In the late 1980s when the first leagues were established OAs found themselves in the London regional divisions and they spent several seasons yo-yoing up and down these. The sale of their original ground allowed the Club to pair up with the School and move in 2002 to Cheapside Farm, now called the ‘Woollams’ and they have built a very impressive multi-sporting club on a 70 acres site shared with St Albans School, with six rugby pitches and other extensive facilities. Every Sunday morning in the season around 800 Minis and Juniors pack the site.
In parallel to the establishment of the Woollams, the Club’s move up the league structure occurred and, inspired by a fifth position in National Two (South) in 2010/11, the following season saw them celebrate a nineteen-match winning run from October to April and clinch the League Championship and automatic promotion to National League 1. In three seasons at the higher level they finished 5th, 9th and 14th in 2014-15 – and were unluckily relegated on the final day of that season as Cinderford escaped by one point. They reclaimed their N1 status for the 2016-17 season.
OA’s new Head Coach this season is Gavin Hogg and he faced a big challenge in rebuilding a competitive squad in the summer following several key players moving on, a parallel situation to Fylde’s.
Their strong pack features experienced prop Charlie Hughes, hookers Tadgh McElroy & Oliver Walliker, and skipper and stalwart lock Ross Hamilton, recently partnered in the 2nd row by promising Saracens dual registered Danny Cutmore. The backrow includes the influential Sam Lunnon and No 8 Chris West.
In their backs, the most regular partnership is made up of experienced scrum-half Jack Daly and fly-half and goal kicker Tom Bednall. Dangerous runners include winger Joe Bridger (ex-Stourbridge), fullback/winger Nick Foster, centres Craig Dowsett, Dom Morris and Saracens dual registered youngster Reuben Bird-Tulloch.
Leading scorers are Tom Bednall and Dan Watt with 76 and 71 points respectively. Joint top try scorers are Nick Foster and Joe Bridger, each with five, followed by hooker Tadgh McElroy, scrum-half Morgan Thompson and centre Craig Dowsett with four.
Following a week off, Fylde will welcome back victorious Lancashire U’20s players Tom Carleton, Ben Gregory and Nick Ashcroft into the squad and they are included in the starting line-up. Greg Nicholls, Dan Richardson and Adam McCarthy return to the squad.