Darlington Mowden Park vs. Preston Grasshoppers – KO 2.15pm
Head Coach Michael Lough has to make a number of enforced changes to his side for Saturday with both Matt Hughes and Karl Fitzpatrick on the injured list. Good news however is the return to the starting line up of Phil Mills, Lewis Allen, Anthony Elliott and Ali Murray after their Lancashire experience last weekend.
Danny Madden starts at prop after coming off the bench last week while Brad Tuff and two try Alex Austin move in the other direction.
1. Danny Madden, 2. Phil Mills, 3. Richard Morton, 4. Ali Murray, 5. Gareth Gore, 6. Will Keenan, 7. Killian Wallace, 8. Dominic Moon. Captain, 9. Sam Kindred, 10. Lewis Allen, 11. Adam Birchall, 12. Jack Ward, 13. Phil Baines, 14. Anthony Elliott, 15. Sean Taylor.
Replacements: 16. Chris Gale, 17. Brad Tuff, 18. Alex Austin, 19. Craig Aikman, 20. Josh Purnell.
It seems an awful long time since the opening day of the season when we played Darlington Mowden Park at Lightfoot Green and it’s fair to say the thirty four point to nil scoreline didn’t give any indication that the North Easterners might finish above us in the table as looks a definate possibility. While they defended valiantly it was only a matter of time before the amount of tackling took its toll and points began to mount up for the home side. A ten points to nil half time lead was soon extended in the second half by another four tries and had Sean Long brought his kicking feet with him the scoreline would have been even larger. Interestingly that day, all Hoppers points came from the backs!
Hoppers go into the game in the outskirts of Darlington with a second consecutive third place spot still a possibility. Three wins from their remaining games might be sufficient as they trail Saturday’s opponents and current incumbents of that third place spot by fourteen points. So if they are to achieve their goal, they must firstly secure an away win against a team they haven’t defeated on home ground previously, restrict them to just one point or less then go on to win their remaining two games collecting bonus points in each and making up the points difference that curently exists between the two teams. Time will tell!
A look below at Hoppers line up from our last meeting with Mowden Park and comparing it with recent weeks shows a number of differences. Alan Holmes has handed over hooking duties to Phil Mills since around the half season mark and very little has been seen of club stalwart Wayne Steel in the 1st XV since before Christmas.
The half back pairing of Josh Purnell and Sean Long was a rarity, with Sam Kindred wearing the number nine shirt for a long period before Craig Aikman appeared on the scene, but Sam’s now back in ownership so as with other positions in the team, competition is very keen. Sean Long only made fleeting appearances at ten, with Karl Fitzpatrick and young Lewis Allen mainly sharing the roll for the rest of the season.
1. Andy Irving, 2. Alan Holmes, 3. Richard Morton, 4. Gareth Gore, 5. Wayne Steel, 6. Ally Murray, 7. Killian Wallace, 8. Dominic Moon, Captain. 9. Josh Purnell, 10. Sean Long, 11. Adam Birchall, 12. Jack Ward, 13. Karl Fitzpatrick, 14. Phil Baines, 15. Sean Taylor.
Replacements: 16. Phil Mills, 17. Matt Hughes, 18. Sam Kindred, 19. Will Keenan, 20. Chris Gale.
The rest of the back line has been a fairly settled group all season with Phil Baines, Sean Taylor and Jack Ward being the only ever presents for the first fifteen.
To date Michael Lough has used just thirty eight players in his first team squad this season, which in comparison to the forty eight last term and forty four the one before is a very low figure and is in all probability down to the unsung heroes of the club who look after the physiotherapy, injury recovery, training, nutritional needs and conditioning of our players.
With Hoppers final two games of the season due to take place whilst the County Championship gets under way next Saturday, there will no doubt be more selection and considerations for playing honours for members of the 1st XV squad to be considered.
The coaching staff have also had to handle skipper Dominic Moon’s absence for a month whilst he helped out former Hoppers Head Coach Dave Baldwin at Leeds Carnegie with his injury problems and the ever uncertainty regarding Sean Long’s availability during the first half of the season. Credit must also be given to the coaching and rugby heads of department who have carefully handled the playing time of the club’s young stars, thus giving no less than six of them the opportunity to play for their county at under twenty level in the National competition.
Last Saturday at Lightfoot Green was certainly a grand occasion capped by a number of notable achievements. ‘Dad’ Keith Brierley running out for his grand farewell after fifty two seasons and over two thousand games, Andy Irving taking the field for a more modest but most significant fiftieth time and Sean Taylor notching twenty eight points hoisting him above Steve Kerry as the most prolific league points scorer in a season for Preston Grasshoppers. Add to this Skipper Dominic Moon scoring his fiftieth try for the club from just seventy seven appearances all witnessed by by far the highest attendance of the day in National 2 (almost double the number of spectators watching the match of the day at Brantingham Park) which included our friends from Italy who had entertained spectators earlier in the day, tourists from Cheltenham Saracens and a Junior team from Wharfedale. To top it all we were treated to some warm Spring sunshine and everyone had a good old day………apart from Leicester Lions that is!
So this coming Saturday should have been the last game of Hoppers season but for a couple of postponed matches still to be played out and back in September when we last played Darlington Mowden Park, we were expecting to end the season at Yiewlands Drive. However in what has been one of the biggest rugby stories of the year, our hosts have moved to what I believe to be the largest capacity, sole rugby club arena in the country. Last years National North 3 Champions from the North East have gradually recovered from that first day blitz at Lightfoot Green, steadily climbing the table and looking likely to finish just short of a play off place.
Reportedly with money in the bank from the sale of their old ground for housing, Darlington Mowden Park could very well become the premier club in the north east in future seasons. Although the club are playing this side of the story very much down, the likes of Blaydon and probably more so Tynedale who have spent much of this season in the bottom half of National 1, must be looking over their shoulders at the prospect of new playing partners soon, or worse, ships that pass in the night. Newcastle Falcons currently hold the title of top dog in the area, more than likely only due to the RFU millions constantly pouring their way, so who knows what the situation may be in a few years time up in that part of the country?
Fixtures between Hoppers and Mowden Park first started comparatively recently in the 2002/3 season when the clubs met on three occasions with Mowden Park winning the two league matches plus a very close run cup tie by two points out of a total of seventy eight scored on the day. It wasn’t until the end of the 2004/5 season that Hoppers finally achieved a victory after six failed attempts with a sixty five points to thirty eight home win. There have been a total of fourteen matches between the two clubs with the Darlington outfit having the upper hand with nine victories against just three by Hoppers plus two drawn games.
Latest news on the make up of National 2 North for next season is that all three relegated teams are decided so it’s good bye for now to Huddersfield, Stockport and Westoe but the top and play off candidates still can’t be separated. It will be one or both of Stourbridge and Hull Ionians to be promoted. Confirmed as joining us in 2013/14 are Sedgley Park and still to be decided Wharfedale or Macclesfield relegated from National 1. Midlands 1 Champions are Amptill and from North 1 Chester with Harrogate and Sutton Coldfield to fight out their particular play off next Saturday. Sad news from North 1 that in finishing second from bottom, Kendal are relegated for a second successive season.
With Macclesfield 2’s accumulating some serious points over Fylde in last week’s double header, top spot in the Bateman Premier League looks a forlorn hope now for our Second XV. Only a near two hundred point winning margin over the luckless Fylde outfit this Friday evening at Lightfoot Green would mean Hoppers retain their title. The only other league fixture scheduled for next weekend will see our fifth team entertain Burnley Seconds. However there may be more tourists making a visit so keep your eye on the website for news.