[Photo above courtesy of Stourbridge’s Ceri Davies from the November game.]
Fylde welcome Stourbridge to the Woodlands on Saturday (ko 15.00) for a fixture that could determine whether the Lancastrians can sustain their chase of the three leading clubs in National Two (North). They are currently in 4th place, 7 points behind leaders Hull Ionians. In a division in which evidence suggests that pretty much any team can on its day beat any other, there could well be twists and turns before the season comes to its conclusion at the end of April.
Stourbridge was founded in 1876 but like a number of rugby clubs in the North Midlands at that time didn’t last long. The club was re-formed after the 1st World War so it has a similar lineage to Fylde’s. But the two clubs’ fates didn’t bring them together until 2001-2 in National Two (level 3) and there has been just seven matches between them since. Fylde have had the whip hand with six victories, including an important 18-36 one at Stourton Park in early November. This was the beginning of Fylde’s run of nine matches unbeaten.
Stour are one of the ‘big fish’ in N2N, have a professional set-up in the North Midlands and should never be underestimated. Over the last few seasons they have rather flattered to deceive, not quite delivering what they’ve promised. This season has been ‘up and down’ for the Club, with good performances liberally interspersed with disappointing ones. They started their campaign with three wins in their first four fixtures but then slipped up periodically, especially away from home. They have won just two matches away from Stourton Park whilst losing eight.
Their form has markedly picked up since Christmas. They had a high scoring 53-34 victory at home to Peterborough, put up a brave performance at Hinckley (15-7 loss), had an outstanding 7-3 win over league leaders Hull Ionians, a brisk 19-34 win at South Leicester and in their last match a honourable 26-all home draw against promotion contenders Chester. So they will prove very serious opponents to Fylde as the Lancastrians chase the leading three clubs with just seven matches left.
Stourbridge were outstanding champions of National Two North in 2000-1 and then had an excellent eleven successive seasons in National One (level 3). They mainly occupied a mid-table position during this period but were rarely embarrassed. The run came to an end in 2011-12 when they were relegated back to level four, National Two (North). In the six seasons since then, they have generally been promotion contenders, including finishing in 4th place twice, 3rd once and in 2012-13 in 2nd place before losing in a play-off match.
Under long standing Director of Rugby Neil Mitchell, they have built strong squads season after season, mixing experienced players from around the Midlands and beyond with local products who have come through their youth system.
The current squad reflects this pattern and is based on a strong pack, reckoned by Warren Spragg in his programme notes for this game as the biggest in the division. Props Stefan Thorpe (ex-Moseley and Birmingham Solihull), Chad Thorne (ex-Coventry & Hartpury) and Mark George (with more than 200 appearances for the Club) provide a solid base along with former Moseley hooker Jack Lea. Durable lock Nick Murphy (ex-Dudley Kingswinsford) has usually partnered skipper Llyr Griffiths at lock and this department has been strengthened further in the past couple of weeks with the return to the club of Chris Roddy from Preston Grasshoppers. The roster of backrow forwards include the very experienced Nigel Mukarati (formerly Broadstreet) who has made almost 200 appearances for the Club over seven seasons, missing just four matches along the way! An impressive newcomer this season is no 8 Nick Cairns who joined from Tynedale as well as having a season at South Leicester.
The backline has a number of dangerous runners including the very quick Dan Rundle (ex-Coventry, Tynedale & Westoe) who was one of the few players who famously chased down Fylde’s record scorer Oli Brennand at the Woodlands when playing for Cov a few seasons ago. New fullback this season is ex-Moseley and Hartpury’s Mark Harrison whilst the centre partnership has most frequently featured free scoring, former Aberavon centre Joe Heatley alongside Hal Riley. Fly-half and goalkicker Rickie Aley was a major capture from South Leicester at the beginning of this season and he made a mark in the first half of the campaign with impressive displays but hasn’t featured since Christmas. He has been replaced at 10 by Sam Wilson and goal kicking duties assumed by scrum-half Gareth Simpson.
Leading points scorer is Rickie Aley with 135 points and top try scorers are Rundle (13), Jack Lea (12) and Harrison (10)
Fylde make two changes in their starting line-up. Cam Crampton begins the game at scrum-half and Cal Ford is at tight head prop. A very strong bench features scrum-half Gus Warr, young prop Matt Ashcroft, brother of lock Nick, and three forwards who have recovered from injury – Alex Loney, Jacob Conner and Olli Parkinson. Lock forward Parkinson was stretched off against Leicester Lions in mid-January and has missed five matches in consequence.
15 Tom Carleton; 14 Henry Hadfield, 13 Ralph Dowds, 12 Connor Wilkinson, 11 Tom Grimes; 10 Greg Smith, 9 Cameron Crampton; 1 Bevan Rodd, 2 Ben Gregory, 3 Cal Ford, 4 Matt Garrod, 5 Nick Ashcroft, 6 Ben Vernon (c), 7 Ben O’Ryan, 8 Sam Dugdale.
16 Matt Ashcroft, 17 Alex Loney, 18 Olli Parkinson, 19 Jacob Connor, 20 Gus Warr.