At last we are in sight of a new season and now that the worst of Covid is (hopefully) behind us we can start to look at what is in store in the coming months.
I have been speaking to the players and coaching staff as they begin pre-season training, getting a picture of what is happening and how they are preparing for September.
Firstly, I chatted with Head Coach Paul Arnold and asked him how preparation was going.
Yes, it’s been good. We’re in our third session now. We were going to start last Tuesday but with England getting into the semis we gave the lads an extra day off!
It’s been good to get back, what with Covid and everything it’s been disjointed from last year but it’s great to see smiles on people’s faces again and get a bit of normality back.
- About the coming season, what can we expect to see?
We’ve now got a young, exciting back line with a lot of pace from what I’m seeing in training and we want to move forward from last season when so many things were out of our control. We’ve analysed everything, where we can get better, and we’re looking at a clean slate.
- So if I said we are looking at a more backs and running orientated style of play as opposed to what’s been in the past a very much forwards-driven pattern, is that what Byron’s brought to the place or was it something you had in mind?
It’s something we had in mind and I’ve always wanted to play attacking rugby. In our first season we did some nice stuff, and then, because you play to your strengths and we had such a dominant pack, it was just the way we played but what with a lot of the new players, who look sharp, and with what we’ve got already, we need to go away from just trying to bully teams. We’ll still have that element of a good, strong pack so we will just focus more. Byron’s brought a lot of energy and the lads are excited working with him.
- Moving on from that, tell us about the new players. I see we have quite a few new faces and one or two returning players.
Yes, there’s a few come back, we have a couple of new lads at ten who I like the look of and I think that’s been a bit of a problem position for us over the last few years so we’re looking to find out who can nail down that shirt. I’ve told the lads I honestly don’t have a clue who will be picked as yet and we’ve got a full eight-week pre-season to work out who wants to be in that fresh shirt on September fourth.
I then met up with Ally Murray:
- Congratulations on your appointment as Club Captain, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying it’s well-deserved. How does this change your role in the Club?
Well, to be honest, when Gareth (Dyer) asked me I was obviously over the moon and unbelievably proud and honoured. Then I began thinking about it and started talking to him about the role and I genuinely don’t see it changing the way I go about my business around the Club because he was very much putting it that people look up to me and want me to do well, and respect me in and around the Club, not just in the first team squad. He was basically saying, ‘this is what we want from you, we just want you to carry on doing it’, and then I suppose it was a matter of putting a title onto it really.
I think my main focus for this season and going forward is getting the First Team and that, ‘First Team Squad brand’ out there, being a part of the Club.
Whereas in the past, social guys and people in the Club have not seen us that much around the place and have not seen the First Team brand and they maybe were thinking, ‘they’re playing a match and then they’re leaving the place’ and I’m very much about being a Hopper and being here and enjoying each other’s company, enjoying the Club and our surroundings because, ultimately we have one of the best Clubhouses and facilities there is and I’ve been to a few when travelling around with Hoppers and that’s certainly not just the level we are in at the moment but in the level above as well.
I want to get that out there, to be expressive in that we are part of the Club and we want to be that driving force that people look up to and want to aspire to. That comes from the juniors and feeds in to that. Standing here at the side of the pitch just now there are young kids running about and hopefully they will be pulling the shirt on one day.
- Just going on from that, do you feel that in the past there has been a bit of a detachment between the First Team Squad and the rest of the Club?
I think, personally, yes. Talking to a few guys from the social sides, the three’s, fours, fives and sixes, all the way through the club, I think so and it’s not been good for anyone and it’s not helped anything. You want to battle the fifteen players that are opposite you and not have to have another battle in the bar afterwards, arguing your point as to ‘this is why we play for the team, this is why guys do this and that’, we want to be a united group and enjoy each other’s company. For me I couldn’t care less what team you turn out for as long as you turn out for Hoppers.
- And finally, your thoughts about this coming season after such a long layoff?
It’s strange. It’s been bizarre for everyone. I send my love and best wishes to everyone that has been affected by the pandemic. First, and foremost, I can’t wait to see everyone back down here and it’s so nice to be back and secondly, coming into this new season, I think obviously we want to win the league.
There’s a new restructuring of the league so it will be a National Two North which, of course will be more specifically northern teams. We all love a scrap and a battle and it’ll be us against them, Yorkshire against Lancashire to for a good part of it and it will be massively important we’re in at that level. It’ll be tough, there are good teams, Otley, Macclesfield, Rossendale for example, who will always put up a good fight. Billingham, who are a good side, then Alnwick, it’s an absolute trek up there. It’ll be tough for everyone but with the signings we’ve made and the squad ethos we’re trying to develop, together with the coaching setup that we’ve got, I think that we will be more than just challenging, I think we will be top.
Next I met with Christian Taylor:
- Congratulations on your appointment as First Team Captain, what are your priorities for the new season?
As First Team Captain I will be supported by Ally Murray as Club Captain and Sam Stott and Matt Lamprey as Vice-Captains and for this year we’ve got to aim for promotion at the very least. You always want to aim as high as possible. I think that it’s very much within the realms of possibility that we can win the league if everything comes together properly and the pre-season goes as it is planned. We’ve had two or three sessions so far and they’ve been extremely positive . There’s been lots of new lads down who look good and very ready to get brought in. We had our team discussion on Tuesday as to our ethos and how we want to present ourselves this year which was also extremely positive and if we all buy into that we will hopefully hit the standards that we should and thereby get the Club back to where it should be.
- And how’s training going?
Good, really good. We are still in the fitness starters so that’s a bit of graft but we have our new S&C coach, Jamie who is excellent, he did some testing on Tuesday so we hope to see some improvements over the next few weeks.
We’ve also got Byron McGuigan down now as backs coach and he’s bringing in a new shape which is extremely exciting and will allow us to play much better rugby and, hopefully, more positive rugby going forward.
Finally I caught up with Matt Lamprey and Sam Stott:
- Well done on your appointment as Team Vice-Captains. Tell us how you think this will change your situation
Sam – I think, as a player, it doesn’t affect your game for the eighty minutes, obviously we’ve got to be supportive of Chris and his leadership of the team and of course, both off the pitch and in training, driving the standards and making sure that we’re hitting the goals that we set out at the start of the season. We are conscious of keeping our standards high in our contribution to the Club and our affiliation to the rest of the team, supporters and other team players, making sure that that relationship is good and that‘s something that Matt and myself are looking to push quite hard this season alongside Ally as Club Captain and Chris as Team Captain.
Matt – For me it’s always been just thinking about and playing my own game so it brings a new dynamic for me in terms of knowing that if I’m frustrated, it’s not going to help letting people know that. It’s a different mindset, especially around the changing rooms and other lads and concentrating on how my focus could affect other people’s focus as well and try and learn how I can better help the team other than just how I play on a Saturday.
- What do you think, what are we going to do this season? Obviously you are aiming to do well as a side and I keep hearing everybody I’ve spoken to saying we are out to win this league.
Sam – I think that’s got to be the aim after being relegated last season. We have to aim to win the league and the league restructuring next season is a big one for us, we want to be playing in the best league we can and I think we’ve built a squad that can compete at that level so it’s only right that we get ourselves back there and I believe that in doing so, on the way we can play some exciting rugby as well.
Matt – Yes, I think we just focus on that every week, we want to win and with every win comes where you are in the league and with every win you are nearer the top of that league. I don’t see that there’s any game that we shouldn’t be looking to win. With the squad we’ve got and the strength we have – a lot of new lads, a new dynamic – we’re trying new things in pre-season. With Byron down there’s a lot more clarity in what we want to do and less individualism I think because that got away from us last year so, yes, it should be a really good team effort this time.
Next time I hope to talk to the new players and the other coaching staff to get their perspective on what is ahead.
Keep watching the website to see when the club is open for business and let’s get back to enjoying the place like we used to.
Article by John Le Page, pictures from Mike Craig