JAMES PENMAN will make his first start of 2016 on Saturday when third-placed Plymouth Albion travel to fourth-placed Ampthill in National One (3pm).
The New Zealander has recovered from a hamstring injury to take over at hooker from Rupert Freestone, who is away with the England Students squad.
Penman for Freestone is one of three enforced changes in-form Albion make to their starting line-up.
Winger Ethan Ford has returned to Australia with his pregnant wife, so his place is taken by teenager Harrison Cully, while captain Jake Murphy is ruled out with a broken hand. In his absence Marc Koteczky returns to the team with Tom Bedford moving from 12 to 13.
The loss of Ford and Murphy, who is likely to miss at least three games, does present 18-year-old Tom Putt with a chance to return to the match-day squad for the first time since picking up an injury in November.
Putt, who was Plymouth’s top scorer until suffering a foot problem, is named on the replacements’ bench after returning from a short loan spell at Newton Abbot. He is joined on the bench by fellow teenager Ollie Dawe, who is fit again after an injury that kept him out of Albion’s last match against Blackheath two weeks ago.
However, Dan Pullinger has been rewarded for an impressive display against Blackheath by keeping the number one jersey despite Dawe’s return to fitness.
Albion go into Saturday’s match on the back of eight straight wins and having triumphed in 13 of their last 14 matches, but Ampthill are unbeaten since the end of January and drew with leaders Richmond away in their last outing. They have also beaten Hartpury College and Rosslyn Park in their last six games.
The Bedfordshire side can boost a very experienced squad which includes former Albion players Ben Gulliver and Elliot Clements-Hill, plus South Sea Island internationals Vili Ma’asi, Maama Molitika, Aleki Lutui and Paino Hehea.
“Their physicality is something we have to match for 80 minutes if we want to get a result,” said Albion’s director of rugby Graham Dawe, whose side narrowly beat Ampthill 18-13 at Brickfields in November. “They are very comfortable with their physicality in the tackle and contact area.”
Albion’s preparations for Saturday’s match have not been helped by an off-the-field crisis with the club giving notice of their intention to go into administration so it can be sold.
This weekend’s game will be the first since that announcement was made last week.
Officials had been hopeful the change of ownership of the club might have gone through before this Saturday’s game, but yesterday Albion issued a statement saying negotiations were still on-going and that there would not be any further announcement before the early part of next week.
Dawe, though, is hoping his players can put all the concerns about the club’s future behind them and concentrate fully on trying to claim another vital away win. They are unbeaten on their travels since November and they still have not given up on the idea of catching leaders Richmond.
“As this game looms it focuses the mind very quickly,” said Dawe, when asked if he and his players could concentrate on just the playing side.
“We’ve had a pretty hard working week on the training field trying to prepare for this match.
“It’s a game you want to win and you have to try and get as many elements of your game spot on as possible.”
ALBION TEAM TO FACE AMPTHILL
15 Matt Shepherd
14 Harrison Cully
13 Tom Bedford
12 Marc Koteczky
11 Robin Wedlake
10 Billy Searle
9 Cameron Setter
1 Dan Pullinger
2 James Penman
3 Christian Judge
4 Dan Collier
5 Ed Holmes
6 Nile Dacres
7 Sam Matavesi
8 Herbie Stupple (capt)
Replacements: Ollie Dawe, Gregory Sebastien, Andy Chesters, Seti Raumakita, Tom Putt