SSE National League One
Fylde head coach Mark Nelson believes southern teams will dominate SSE National League One this season, with Blackheath his tip for the title.
The south-east London outfit ended last season with a club record 11 straight league victories and Nelson believes they, along with Ealing, Richmond, Esher and Rosslyn Park, are the teams to watch in what will be a highly entertaining league.
But he neither refuses to dismiss his own team’s chances entirely, nor those of Coventry or Loughborough Students, both of whom he feels could make an impact.
Nelson told The Rugby Paper: “When you look at the squads in our league, I think it’s going to be a lot harder than last year, which was massively difficult in itself when you consider Barking beat Fylde, Ealing and Jersey but then went down.
“Looking at the teams coming in, Richmond are bang in the middle of London’s rugby heartland with money, Esher only just missed out on staying in the Championship and Loughborough have the best resources outside the Premiership.
“Rosslyn Park have recruited heavily so you’re talking about them, Ealing, Richmond, Esher and Blackheath starting the season as massive favourites, with perhaps a side like Coventry being thrown into the mix on the back of their signings.
“They will be the sides to beat, but I fear a north-south divide.”
Fylde finished fourth last season and while Nelson accepts the Lancastrians will do well to better or even match that achievement, he clings to the hope that the London-based teams will cancel each other out in regular derby matches.
“If you pushed me I’d say Blackheath will win it, but the only thing that might save the rest of us is if the London clubs keep beating each other, because there are enough of them to do that which might prevent a runaway leader,” he said.
“If that happened, it might just open the door to the rest of us who are looking to be competitive as well. And what I will tell you about Fylde is that we will play rugby, because that is one thing we certainly won’t compromise on.
“We’ve made some good signings, like Chris Johnson, the leading points scorer in National Two North last season, and Italian international Warren Spragg, so we’ve got a good mix of experience and youth throughout the side.”
As far as the London challenge is concerned, Ealing will hope to go one better after finishing a creditable second to last season’s eventual champions, Jersey.
The west-London outfit have retained nearly all of the players who did them proud last season while adding the likes of locks Steve Pape and Ben Thomas from London Scottish and former England U20 scrum-half Tom Parker from Barking.
“There’s no hangover from last season,” insists Ealing boss Mike Cudmore. “Our goal all along was to stay in the league and show people our wares, so to finish second was a phenomenal achievement by the players and the club.
“We’ve had a good pre-season and we’re in a good place right now, so there are no negatives as far as we’re concerned.
“It’s going to be a tougher league than last year, no question, and I saw a quote from someone saying one of eight clubs could win it, which is probably a fair assessment.
“The good news for us is that we’ve now had a look at the league, understood what’s required and worked on things we didn’t do so well. If we’ve done that right, I think we’re going to be one of those teams in the mix and challenging.”
SSE National League Two North
Caldy director of rugby Simon Wright insists his side have put the heart-ache of last season’s play-off defeat to Richmond behind them and are ready to mount another challenge for promotion from Two North.
He is also tipping fast-improving Hull as another side to watch, along with Preston Grasshoppers, Stourbridge, Luctonians, Bromsgrove and, potentially, Sheffield Tigers.
Wright told The Rugby Paper: “I think Hull will be a difficult team to beat this season. They’ve probably got the biggest pack in the league and have some pace in the backs as well.
“They annihilated us when we went there three-quarters of the way through last season and if they’ve kept the same players, I think they’ll be right up there.
“Preston are a funny one to gauge. They finished third behind us last season and, on the face of it, you’d think they have a pretty strong squad. But their head coach, Dave Baldwin, left over the summer and it will be interesting to see what effect that has.
“Preston were inconsistent last season but I’d expect them to be strong, and there are a few other unknown quantities in this league as well.
“Mike Umaga’s coaching at Stourbridge now and you’d expect them to be strong, having just come down from National One, while Bromsgrove and Luctonians have established themselves fairly well and could challenge.
“I’d fancy Sheffield to be in the mix as well. They were a bit hit and miss last season but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve strengthened in order to have a crack at it.”
Having emerged from the lower leagues to usurp big name local rivals like New Brighton, Liverpool St Helens and Waterloo, Wirral-based Caldy have been impressively consistent, finishing fifth, second, third, fifth and second since last winning promotion in 2007.
Can they finally take the next step up to level three?
“There’s a certain amount of trepidation with the expectation being placed upon us,” Wright admits. “But we need to keep moving forward and the attitude in pre-season has been fantastic.
“We’ve got a lot of good lads coming through and the future looks bright, so the ambition is to get promotion and I’d certainly expect us to be challenging.
“The gaps between the top and bottom get narrower as standards improve, but our momentum is going in the right direction.”
SSE National league Two South
Redruth head coach Adrian Edwards believes Shelford could be the surprise package in Two South this season, with three of last season’s top five teams, Worthing, Hartpury College and Henley, also in the promotion mix.
Edwards believes the highly ambitious Taunton Titans could also challenge, whilst he has not ruled out a promotion push from his own side after a year outside National One.
“Shelford are one of the dark horses,” Edwards told The Rugby Paper. “They finished just behind us in eighth last season and they’re a side people are talking about, while Taunton have signed a few good players on loan from Exeter Chiefs.
“It’s hard to know how Taunton will go because a lot depends on how often those players are made available, but they could certainly offer a threat.
“Hartpury will be strong again, as you’d expect with some of the signings they’ve made, and Worthing and Henley had good seasons last year.
“But nobody really knows how things stand until they’ve played. We go to Taunton first, so we’ll soon find out!”
One of the biggest names in south-west rugby, Redruth have bounced back well from some well-publicised financial turmoil in 2011.
Money remains tight, but Edwards has hung on to most of last season’s squad as well as strengthening in certain key areas.
Winger Lewis Vinnicombe has returned from Camborne and scrum-half Nick Simmons joins from Worcester, while Edwards has employed his expert local knowledge to make some useful signings from the Cornish leagues.
“We’ve got some decent competition amongst the backs now and some good youngsters who’ve come through that I’m pleased with,” Edwards said.
“We’ve got a good pack as well and I’d be surprised if a few of them didn’t go on to play at a high- er level over the next year or two.
“Could that be with Redruth? We have to be realistic about our money situation but we’re looking forward to having a good season.
“I’ve been satisfied with pre-season and we’ve had some good results, but it’s feet on the ground time and we’ll just try to play some good, exciting rugby and get the crowd on our side.
“I haven’t set any targets but if we perform how I think we can, our results will look after themselves.”
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