National One gets no easier for Fylde as, following on the narrow defeat at league leaders Doncaster Knights, they are on the road again on Saturday when they visit 2nd placed Loughborough Students (ko 14.00). Fylde broke a gloomy record at the University when they won for the first time on the ground in April by 35-17. Although the Students had a very solid first season in N1 last season finishing 7th, a place behind Fylde, they have begun this season more impressively with four wins out of five games so far.
The Students have won all three away games – very tough ones at Blaydon (34-9), Wharfedale (29-26) & Worthing (43-24) – and also beat Old Albanian at home (26-19). On the day of Fylde's extraordinary 45-50 loss to Worthing, the Students went down in a similarly remarkable match at home to Blackheath by 43-50.
This is a meeting of two of the top three free scoring teams in the division, each running up an average of 35 points and five tries per game. So Saturday's game is likely to be another wide open contest with no liklihood of a cautious or a defensive mindset from either team. Former Loughborough skipper Evan Stewart will enjoy leading his Fylde team back at his alma mater.
Fylde will be anxious to regain winning momentum after two narrow defeats, by five points on each occasion. They will need to raise their game against a Students team that can clearly embarrass any opponents in the division. The head to head analysis between the two clubs is in favour of the Students who have five wins against Fylde's three.
Loughborough University is an elite centre for sport and has always produced great rugby players under its previous manifestation as Loughborough College. Indeed, Fylde had a long standing fixture with the students which was a casualty of the introduction of league rugby in the mid-1990s. Overall, Loughborough have almost certainly the best university squad in the UK in terms of depth although their BUCS1 squad (their 2nd team) have not been quite so dominating in the last couple of seasons.
As well as the British Universities competition which includes the other major rugby playing institutions, Loughborough decided to enter the RFU league system a few years ago. Given that they attract some of the very best young rugby talent in the UK then it's hardly surprising that they have worked their way from regional competitions up to the national leagues. What is more astonishing – given the nature of student terms, the three-year turnover of student cohorts, the fact that unlike almost every club in the National Leagues they don't pay players, and the solid nine months length of the season – has been their ability to maintain a successful team in these leagues each season.
But somehow they manage it, unlike almost any other UK university team, and have done so with great style. Hartpury College is following in their footsteps and look as though they too might reach National One in the next season or two. The participation of university teams like these in the RFU league structure is somewhat controversial but in anyone terms they certainly bring something different to the National Leagues. Some believe that Loughborough have clear designs on RFU Championship status and they may well press this case on the pitch in the current season.
Loughborough Students have a number of great advantages. They have superb facilities, access to some of the very best coaching around and a back-up team of physiologists, nutritionists, conditioning coaches, and, most importantly, an unsurpassed elite sporting culture. They also have a squad of more or less full-time players, give or take a little studying at the periphery! Their National League opponents have come across a squad of young players in great physical shape and many with the natural talent to go to the top of the professional game.
Under long standing lead coach, now Director of Rugby, Dave Morris, their squad includes a number of young players who are likely to achieve a professional rugby career. The nature of the student experience is the continually moving escalator which is the three year degree course. At the end of last season they waved goodbye to excellent players such as:
Chris Kinloch (to Ealing T), Andy Hall (Ealing T, 319 points last season), Jake Parker (Cornish Pirates), Joe Burton (Nottingham), Harry Williams (Nottingham), Craig Holland (Cornish Pirates), Joe Atkinson (Cornish Pirates) & Jeremy Cunnew (Richmond).
But the production line continued in September as a number of highly ambitious and talented players arrived to rejuvenate the squad. This is an open club, that is they can admit any player, whether a student at the University or not, although the great majority are studying there.
A batch of new recruits have brought an exciting fresh presence into the team that is led proudly by newly appointed captain James Freeman. These include some newcomers with very distinguished CVs and lots of senior experience including in the Championship. These are led by fullback Jack Pons (formerly a 1st team regular at Moseley & Birmingham/Solihull) and his brother, flanker Ben Pons (previously at Coventry, Moseley & Gloucester). Other accomplished new faces are lock Edward Taylor (Luctonians), scrum-half Henry Taylor (Harlequins Academy & Richmond) and wing Jack Wardle (Bromsgrove).
Their squad includes a very quick backline featuring wingers Craig Dowsett & Alex Davies and the very dangerous fullback Jack Pons. The centre partnership is likely to be chosen from Jack Bradford (formerly Nottingham, Leicester Lions & Scotland U'20s), Rhys Owen (ex-Bromsgrove) and George Eastwell. The half-back pairing of fly-half Chris Surman (ex-Stourbridge) & Henry Taylor has played all the games so far. (Taylor has scooped three MoM awards this season – click here for short video interview with him after Worthing game)
The strong pack is based on the considerable foundations of Saracens Academy & England U'18 prop Biyi Alo, Harlequins Academy's Harry Elrington and/or former Caldy star Jack Collister. Powerful back five forwards include skipper James Freeman, Jacob Albon, Edward Spencer, Ben Pons & Alistair Bone.
Their squad for the game is:
15 Jack Pons; 14 Craig Dowsett, 13 Rhys Owen, 12 George Eastwell, 11 Alex Davies; 10 Chris Surman, 9 Henry Taylor; 1 Jack Collister, 2 Tom Crozier, 3 Biyi Alo, 4 Jake Albon, 5 Ed Taylor, 6 James Freeman, 7 Ben Pons, 8 Adam Peters.
Replacements: 16 Harry Elrington, 17 Jay Rudland-Thomas, 18 Ali Bone, 19 Tom Bliss, 20 Jack Bradford.
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Fylde make a number of changes in their starting line-up due to a mix of injuries and unavailable players and give opportunities to a number of young players. Amonst the backs, Olly Viney & Scott Barow were both injured at Doncaster, Stephen Briers is unavailable and Ryan De La Harpe is attending his brother's wedding in Namibia. The newcomer from Ulster's Ballynahinch All Ireland 1A club & former Ireland U'19s squad member, 23 year old Michael Lawton, comes in for his debut at fullback. He has scored no fewer than 85 points for Fylde Hawks in three matches. Another youngster making his first starting appearance for the Club is 20 year old Jordan Dorrington at scrum-half. At the other end of the experience continuum, Richard Kenyon replaces Barrow at centre.
In the pack, Peter Altham & Tom Burtonwood come back into the starting frontrow on rotation. Flanker Joe Robinson is injured and is replaced by Danny Maher. Named amongst the replacements is another debutant, local 21 year old Charles Hough.
15 Michael Lawton; 14 Warren Spragg, 13 Chris Briers, 12 Richard Kenyon, 11 Oli Brennand; 10 Chris Johnson, 9 Jordan Dorrington; 1 Dan Birchall, 2 Tom Burtonwood, 3 Peter Altham, 4 Paul Arnold, 5 Gareth Gore, 6 Danny Maher, 7 Evan Stewart (c), 8 Sam Beaumont.
Replacements: 16 Adam Lewis, 17 Mark Rylance, 18 Ben Vernon, 19 Tom Webb, 20 Charles Hough.
Evan Stewart in action against the Students last December at the Woodlands.