PLYMOUTH Albion will head to high-flying Hartpury College on Saturday without three key forwards and their captain.
James Penman, Dan Collier, Ollie Dawe and Jake Murphy are all ruled out of the trip to Gloucestershire.
Top goalkicker Tom Putt also remains on the sidelines, but centre Marc Koteczky has recovered from a back injury and returns to the team after missing Albion’s last two games against Loughborough and Wharfedale.
Hooker Penman is ruled out with a calf injury, lock Collier has an infected arm and highly-rated young loose-head prop Dawe, who has not missed a match this season, is out with a neck injury.
Their places go to Rupert Freestone, Ed Holmes and Dan Pullinger, while Dean Brooker is recalled from a loan spell at Barnstaple to offer front-row cover on the bench.
Although director of rugby Graham Dawe admits losing three of his regular front-five is not ideal for such a big game, he is hoping their replacements can continue the form the pack has shown the last few matches.
“It is a squad effort,” said the Albion boss, whose team have won their last three league games to move up to sixth in the National One table.
“We’re looking forward to seeing a new second-row partnership between Nile Dacres and Ed Holmes, while Rupert Freestone played particularly well last week when he came on. Dan Pullinger has also been training exceptionally well, so we are looking for a big performance from the front five.”
Collier, the only player over the age of 30 in Albion’s squad, has been influential this season and has been missed in the two matches he has not featured in this term, away at Hull and away at Blackheath.
But Dawe said: “The team certainly does not rely on one person. He’s been important to us, but nobody is irreplaceable.”
Dawe is pleased to at least have centre Koteczky back fit. His return sees Robin Wedlake drop out of the starting line-up.
“It is good to add Marc to the roster again,” said Dawe. “His return does mean Robin misses out. Harrison Cully goes back to the wing having played at centre last week and we made the decision that Seti (Raumakita) deserves a second start.”
Teenage full-back Putt has missed Albion’s last four matches due to a foot injury.
Dawe said: “This week’s too early for Tom, but he is getting better by the week.”
Plymouth will come up against quite an experienced Hartpury pack tomorrow, led by 35-year-old former Albion captain and player-coach Rhys Oakley.
Hartpury, who sit second in the table just one point behind leaders Richmond, are also likely to include fellow over-30s Steve Pape, Wayne Thompson and Robbie Shaw in their matchday squad.
Royal Marine Raumatika, at 27, will be Albion’s oldest player on Saturday.
“It seems strange that we are playing a college team yet they have so much experience in their side,” said Dawe. “For sure they will have some young fellas as well. They do have a nice blend.
“Hartpury are well organised and seem to keep their shape very well. I think that experience they have comes through. They believe in what they are doing and their recent history has been good. They are winning a lot more games than they lose.
“This weekend will certainly be a test of our character and resolve, but going up there on a back of a win will give us something to play for.”
When asked if the pressure would be on Hartpury, given that they are at home and their position in the table, Dawe said: “I don’t know what people expect. We put pressure on ourselves. We expect to challenge and stand up to what they have to offer.
“Trying to overcome their big pack of forwards is going to be our first aim.
“We have every confidence in our ability throughout the team but we have to try and unlock a pretty decent defence.”
Herbie Stupple continues as captain in Murphy’s absence. Albion will finalise their bench tomorrow. Andy Chesters, a former Hartpury player, has been named among a provisional list of seven replacements, which will have to be cut by two.
After Saturday’s match, Albion will not be in action again until January 2 when they travel to Rosslyn Park.
ALBION’S TEAM TO FACE HARTPURY (2.30pm)
15 Ethan Ford
14 Seti Raumakita
13 Tom Bedford
12 Marc Koteczky
11 Harrison Cully
10 Billy Searle
9 Matt Shepherd
1 Dan Pullinger
2 Rupert Freestone
3 Christian Judge
4 Ed Holmes
5 Nile Dacres
6 Jarrad Hayler
7 Sam Matavesi
8 Herbie Stupple (capt)
Replacements (from): Dean Brooker, Andy Chesters, Jim Massey, Gregory Sebastien, Elliot Bale, Cameron Setter, Robin Wedlake.