THE Devon Two season kick-offs off this weekend with Plymouth sides expected to be leading the challenge for promotion.
Five Plymouth Combination clubs – OPMs, St Columba & Torpoint, Old Techs, Plympton Victoria and Devonport High School Old Boys – make up the eight-strong league.
Dartmouth, Buckfastleigh Ramblers and Salcombe are the other teams in the division.
OPMs and St Columba have dropped into the league from Devon One, while Old Techs just missed out on promotion last season, finishing third.
OPMs and Old Techs, relegated in 2015, are tipped to be challenging for a return to Devon One, while DHSOB also have hopes of pushing the teams at the top.
Old Techs (pictured top) know their success in the recent David Butt Trophy, where they reached the final and pushed Devon One hopefuls New Cross all the way, has increased the expectations on them.
They open their league season on Saturday with a tough game against another team expected to be challenging, Dartmouth, at Weston Mill.
Both Old Techs and Dartmouth beat Devon One side Totnes in the David Butt Trophy.
“I think Dartmouth have strengthened over the summer,” said Old Techs coach Shaun Bedford-Smith. “We’re not quite sure what to expect from them, but they are normally pretty big up front and have a few backs that can run a bit as well.
“We’re just looking forward to getting the league started now. November’s a little bit late, but, hopefully, we are going to be lucky with the weather.
“The good thing is we’ve played seven or eight games of rugby now. I think there’s only been one weekend since September 3 when we’ve not played, so that’s two months of rugby and so there’s no excuse that we’re not match fit.”
Bedford-Smith is aware that people are tipping his side as pre-season favourites.
“Last week even the ref said that everyone was expecting us to win the league,” said Bedford-Smith. “But I said there’s Dartmouth, Buckfastleigh, OPMs, who two seasons ago were in the Cornwall/Devon League and DHSOB, who on their day are capable of beating anyone. There’s loads of teams who’ll have ambitions to go up, which is good.
“I know people are tipping us to be up there challenging for promotion, which is a good thing but it also makes you a target and there’s no easy games.
“We’ve also got a lot of local derbies this year, which will make it harder, as league positions go out of the window in derby games. People always up their game against other Plymouth sides as they don’t want to lose.”
Bedford-Smith hopes his side learned their lessons from last year when they just missed out on promotion.
“Last year we did not have a big enough squad,” he said. “When people were not available it caused us a few problems, but I think we have got a bit more strength in depth this year and we are training better.
“We ended up third last year, which I think is where we deserved, because we did not have full commitment every Saturday, but I think we have that now. I think the players know now what they can achieve if they train properly and commit.”
Old Techs warmed up for Saturday’s match with Dartmouth with a 32-0 Lockie Cup win over Marjons last Saturday.
“It was a good result and the most pleasing thing was that they did not score any points,” said Bedford-Smith. “Students like to play running rugby and normally games with them are high scoring but we kept them to zero and we scored six tries.
“Some fringe players played and gave a really good account of themselves, which is going to make selection interesting for this week.”
Another big match this weekend takes place at King George V Playing Fields where OPMs host DHSOB.
“The David Butt Cup has given us time to look at our positions and things like that and I think we are quite well prepared for the league now,” said OPMs team manager and spokesman Richard Atkinson.
“We are looking forward to this weekend. It should be a good test.
“This must be the first time we have played DHSOB in the league for 10 years, so we are looking forward to that.
“We’ve had really good numbers at training. We’ve got a few boys coming back from injury. Martin Skelley is back after a pulled hamstring.”
OPMs might be many observers’ tip to do well in the division, but the club themselves are keeping a lid on their expectations.
When asked what their hopes were for the season, Atkinson said: “It is our 90th year, so maybe a Combination cup victory and maybe promotion, but that’s not foremost in our sights really.
“We just want a season of rebuilding and make sure when we do go up we are ready for the league above.”
The Old Boys believe Dartmouth might be the team to watch this season, having played them twice already.
“Dartmouth have recruited very well,” said Atkinson. “We went up there and it was a different team that had come down here and they went and turned over Totnes the following week.
“I would say Dartmouth and Techs are favourites.”
Although disappointed to be relegated last season, OPMs are looking forward to a season of less travelling and more derby matches.
“Look at the travelling you’d be doing in Devon One compared to Devon Two,” said Atkinson. “Our furthest away game this season is Dartmouth. We are looking forward to a lot less travelling.”
DHSOB are expected to be the danger side in Devon Two as they have proved when they are at full strength they can beat anyone on their day.
Their big problem has been player availability, particularly with their Fijian players.
But they are hoping they can be stronger on weekly basis than they were last year.
However, they have suffered a blow even before the season kicks off as they, along with Buckfastleigh and Salcombe, have to start the campaign on minus five points for failing to fulfil fixtures towards the end of last season.
The only game DHSOB could not raise a side for was a trip to already-promoted Torrington.
DHSOB particularly struggled last year with player availability after they were docked 25 points for a breach of player registration regulations, which meant they were guaranteed to finish bottom of the table.
But the Old Boys, although unhappy to be starting on minus five points as they feel they are being punished twice, are keen to move on. This year they will be coached by Rabs Seru.
They have shown in recent weeks by beating Devonport Services IIs in the Lockie Cup and losing by just one point to Old Techs away in the David Butt Trophy that they could be a threat this season.
“We feel if we can avoid injuries and can be reliable and consistent with a settle squad then we are good enough to challenge anyone in the league,” said director of rugby Mike Freeman.
“But on the flip side, if we are unreliable and not committed then we’ll struggle.
“This is a very, very difficult league to get out of. We feel we shouldn’t be in Devon One with our facilities and youth section, but inconsistency and lack of commitment has cost us.
“If any club commits seriously to a whole season then they are likely to be the ones who get promoted.
“Old Techs are always strong, Dartmouth look like they are going to be strong this year, OPMs have just been relegated and are not really a Devon Two club. If OPMs get their act together will be the ones to beat. St Columba have had former glories and should be able to recruit from their side of the Tamar. Salcombe are a very honest club, Buckfastleigh are always difficult to beat and Plym Vic are the most improved side in the league. It is going to be a very difficult league.
“We are hoping we can set a stall out this week. We want to get the season off to a good start and it should be an opening flowing game of rugby this weekend between us and OPMs.
“If we can get a result that sets our stall out, but if not we know there’s plenty more games to go.”
PLYMPTON Victoria open their season with a home match against Salcombe at Marsh Mills (2.30pm).
Perennial Devon Two strugglers Plym Vic have been happy with how their preparations for the new league season have gone and will go into the campaign in better shape than they have been for a number of years.
They reached last year’s Ellis Trophy final and won their opening David Butt Trophy match against St Columba & Torpoint.
Plym Vic did not achieve a league win last season, but they hope to change that this season.
Their ambition, according to experienced coach Howell Phillips, is to play some good rugby and not to finish bottom of the table.
“I think we are as ready as any other club,” said Phillips.
“If we can get our first choice Plym Vic side out then we could do some damage. We’ve had some new lads join us and it will be interesting to see how they settle in.
“Forward-wise I think we are quite strong. I’m quite happy that we can win our own ball – Chris (Hunt) has done a good job on our scrum and line-out – but it’s what we do with it afterwards that’s important. We are just trying to put the rest of it together. A lot of that does come down to experience.”
He added: “No-one wants to finish bottom and I don’t think our boys deserve to finish second every week. Their attitude and effort is really good and I think they deserve more than that.
“If we can play some reasonable rugby every week then I will be happy.
“Our target is just to play some good rugby and not to finish on the bottom.”
Plym Vic will know their visitors to Marsh Mills on Saturday, Salcombe, quite well. The two clubs played two pre-season friendlies against each other in August.
The match at Marsh Mills was really tight with Salcombe just winning 7-3 but the south Devon side did enjoy a 34-5 win at their place in mid-week with Plym Vic understrength.
Phillips hopes his team can make home advantage tell on Saturday and make it third time lucky.
“We had two reasonable games against Salcombe in pre-season,” said Phillips. “They have got a couple of experienced lads in their backs. I know their coach and they do play some nice rugby but they have lost a few of their regular boys.
“We’re at home and our pitch helps us sometimes as it is smaller than most.
“We just need people to slot together and work on the basics.”
Saints are currently rebuilding after a tough season in Devon One last year, where they finished bottom without a win. That was in contrast to the previous campaign, where they finished third behind Plymouth Argaum and Plymstock Albion Oaks and won the RNEC.
The Cornish club lost to Plympton Victoria in the David Butt Trophy before withdrawing from the competition, but no-one will be taking them lightly.
Like most of the Devon Two teams, player availability will determine how they will do this season.
They feel there is no pressure on them this season and are looking forward to enjoying their rugby with a new, young team.
Head coach Damien Chambers said: “We have had our squad decimated since our best ever season in 2014/15 when we won the RNEC Cup and almost got promoted to the Devon & Cornwall League.
“We have seen most of our team go to higher league teams or move away with work or family and last season was extremely testing for me and my coaches as most Saturdays we were still ringing around for players to fulfil our league commitment.”
But for the first time in the club’s history, Saints now have players stepping up from their youth set-up.
“I have two 18-year-old props, Conor Harris and Hakim Bembridge stepping up and a 17-year-old number nine, Michael Kendal, and a 17-year-old fly-half called Bill Butler,” said Chambers.
“The late start to the league season has given me more time to work with them and get them ready for men’s rugby.
“Another good thing about this new season is that teams are allowed five substitutes on the bench which for a club like Torpoint is brilliant as it allows us to give more players game-time. Our squad is only about 25 at the best and have never had a squad big enough for a second team, so this will keep players happy.”
He added: “I am looking forward to this season as the pressure is gone. We can’t go down so we can start to play a bit more rugby and start enjoying the game again and get back to the best bit about rugby – the fun and games in the clubhouse after.”