Fylde welcomes Cambridge RUFC to the Woodlands on Saturday (ko 15.00) in a very attractive opening to the 2017-18 season. Games between the two clubs have been very high scoring, with the teams sharing an average of 58 points in their six league fixtures to date. The visitors play a similar brand of attacking rugby as Fylde and, with good weather forecast, the superb looking Woodlands pitch is a fine stage for another points fest.
The half of the Fylde squad likely to run out on Saturday who were involved in last season’s games between the clubs will hope to forget about two poor performances which saw defeats at Volac Park (0-36) and an equally chastening setback at home last March when they were again defeated, by 28-46.
In fact, last season was a difficult one in National One for both clubs. They both flirted with relegation and spent the majority of the campaign in the bottom third of the table. Fylde finished the campaign in 12th place and Cambridge in 14th. Both will be very anxious to avoid those pressures in this new season. The importance of a few early victories can’t be stressed too highly.
The clubs have played just seven previous matches in their long histories, with Cambridge having four wins and Fylde three including a 2005 EDF Trophy victory at the Woodlands.
Cambridge have been another of the clubs that have yo-yoed between levels three and four. They were handsome champions of National Two (South) in 2015-16 and deservedly returned to N1 after three seasons away. The story of the rise of Cambridge is a fascinating one, typifying a lot of the issues in National League rugby since the onset of professionalism. In 2003 they languished at level six in London 2. A new management and strategic approach kick started a dramatic rise through the divisions as well as a major programme of physical development at Volac Park and a commercial plan involving many sponsors. Three successive promotions between 2003/4 and 2005/6 took the club to National One and they flourished at this level between 2006 and 2012. They finished 9th, 6th, 2nd, 4th & 3rd before dropping to 12th in 2011/12.
The Club hit financial problems in 2011 and returned to community club status, away from a ‘1st team only’ model, and re-established other senior teams and a community coaching set-up working with local schools, in a similar fashion to Fylde. The changed basis of financing the Club inevitably meant a reduction in the 1st team playing budget and the use of many more locally developed young players in the 1st team squad. They struggled even more in 2012/13 and finished bottom of the division. Three seasons in N2 (South) allowed the Club to re-group and get back to National One last season.
Judicious recruitment over the past couple of seasons have strengthened the core squad under new Director of Rugby, Ross Stewart. The highest profile ‘newcomer’ for the new season is legendary flanker Darren Fox who returns to the club as player-coach after a period away. The former Northampton Saints favourite skippered Cambridge from 2008-2012 before joining Bedford Blues and then Peterborough. His return to the ‘Blood & Sands’ is a clear statement of ambition and intent
The great majority of the playing squad were with the club last season. Newcomers include the excellent lock Rob Conquest (last season at Coventry and DMP), prop forward Henry Peck (ex-Ampthill) and scrum-halves Pierre Peres (Bury St Edmunds) and Cameron Keenan (ex-Olney, North Otago, Bedford & Blackheath).
Of Cambridge’s established players, they have a tough pack including hooker and joint skipper Ean Griffiths, athletic Australian lock George Bretag-Norris alongside Rob Conquest, flanker Jake McCloud, South African back five forward Wade Schoeman and young Northampton Saints Academy backrower Joe Britton.
Centre Matt Hema, brothers James and Michael Ayrton (joint skipper) and Albert Portsmouth are dangerous runners in the back line and carved up Fylde at the Woodlands last March. Between them, they notched 45 tries last season. Leading points scorer in 2016-17 was Jack Green who kicked 134 points. They have lost another player who has teased and tested the Lancastrians’ defence over recent seasons, veteran scrum-half Stef Liebenberg, who has moved to National One rivals, Ampthill.
Seven players are in line to make their 1st team debuts. In the backs, former KGS student George Brookes starts the game at fullback, and Tom Grimes is at centre. The pack sees a first start for prop Mark Irving and lock Harlan Corrie. On the bench, lock Karl Capstick steps up from the Hawks and newcomers, flanker Adam McCarthy and centre/winger Henry Hadfield, will hope to get game time.
Injuries rule out new lock Olli Parkinson, backrower Matt Ellis, flanker Jamie Brookes and halfback Danny Carlton, whilst Matt Garrod is recovering from shoulder surgery and fly-half Greg Smith is best man at a wedding.
15 George Brookes; 14 Tom Carleton, 13 Tom Grimes, 12 Connor Wilkinson, 11 James Bailey; 10 Chris Briers, 9 Greg Nicholls; 1 Adam Lewis, 2 Tom Burtonwood, 3 Mark Irving, 4 Nick Ashcroft, 5 Harlan Corrie, 6 Ben Vernon, 7 Toby Harrison, 8 David Fairbrother.
16 Adam Joyner, 17 Ben Gregory, 18 Karl Capstick, 19 Adam McCarthy, 20 Henry Hadfield.
Elite referee Ian Tempest officiates, along with Assistant Referees Dean Lythgoe and Steve Halliday. Merseyside-based Ian has been a full-time referee for five years or so and regularly officiates Premiership and Championship games. More recently he has been involved in refereeing the Womens Rugby World Cup.
We welcome Ian and his colleagues to the Woodlands and hope they have an enjoyable afternoon.