IVYBRIDGE have a great chance to move up the South West Premier League table at the start of 2018 with back-to-back home games.
The 10th-placed Bridgers host second-from-bottom Lydney on Saturday before welcoming 11th-placed Newbury Blues seven days later.
The Cross-in-Hand club had managed to find some form before Christmas, claiming wins against Camborne and Cleve and narrowly losing by one score away at Exmouth.
And coach Lewis Paterson is hoping they can continue their consistency after their three-week festive break.
“We have had a good Christmas break,” said Paterson. “We just trained once before Christmas but came back this week and had a really good session.
“We just want to get straight back into the rugby and into that consistency that led to great performances against Camborne and Cleve and an unfortunate narrow loss at Exmouth, but that was still a good game that we could have won.
“They were three very good games before the end of the year.”
Lydney have only won twice this season – both at home – so Ivybridge will be favourites on Saturday. But Paterson has warned his team not to take the Forest of Dean side lightly.
“We touched on that in training,” he said. “Last year we were in a really strong position in the league and Launceston came to us straight after Christmas. They hadn’t won away all year and they beat us on our paddock.
“We have said that we always try to learn from previous mistakes and so we don’t want the same to happen this year. We want to be hungry and hunt for a win and really kick-start the second half of the season.”
Ivybridge are boosted going into the second half of the season with a number of players returning to training, including flanker Alex Hall, who has not played yet this campaign, and locks Dom Loomes and James Sloan.
“We have been bolstered by the return of a number of boys,” said Paterson. “But the squad played so well before Christmas that everyone has to earn their place. You can’t just replace someone who has been winning us games.”
This weekend, though, Ivybridge will be missing player-coaches Paterson and Jamie Tripcony.
Paterson has been struggling with flu over the Christmas period, while Tripcony has a minor injury.
“We don’t play players who are not 100 per cent as it could hinder the team,” said Paterson.
In Paterson’s absence, Matt Grieveson is likely to form a centre partnership with Charlie Briant, while youngster Jay Toogood could make his league debut for the club. He is set to be named on the bench.
WESTERN COUNTIES WEST
PROMOTION-chasing Devonport Services will kick-off 2018 with a tough away trip to Truro in Western Counties West.
Services sit third in the table, six points behind leaders St Ives and two behind second-placed St Austell.
The top two meet this weekend, which gives Devonport the chance to put themselves in a great position – providing they can win at Truro.
Services have not enjoyed the best form away recently. They may be unbeaten at the Rectory this season, but have not won on their travels in the league since the start of October.
Since then they have drawn with Wadebridge and lost at Sidmouth and St Ives.
Truro, who sit in seventh spot, do have a good home record this term, but are not quite as strong as they were last season when they finished fourth in the table, one place behind Services.
“Truro away is pretty tough – we probably couldn’t have got a tougher game to start the year,” said Services coach Mike Lewis.
“However, they have been a bit inconsistent this year. They have beaten some big teams but then lost to teams you wouldn’t expect.
“When we played them previously it was quite early in the season and it wasn’t really a barnstormer of a game.
“But we would really like to put on a show for ourselves and build some confidence from the first game of the year.
“We certainly don’t want to lose any ground on St Ives and St Austell.”
Services added an extra training session into their programme this week after their Christmas break.
Lewis admitted their first session back and been ‘rough’ and was just glad to get it out of the way.
Prior to the three-week Christmas break, Services claimed a bonus-point 24-8 home win over Torquay Athletic.
At Moorlands Lane, leaders Saltash will host Plymstock Albion Oaks, while at Sandy Park, Tavistock will entertain Plymouth Argaum.
Saltash finished 2017 off in fine style. They won their last seven matches of the year, including beating title-rivals Penryn 30-14 and Plymouth Argaum 52-0 in their final match before the break.
Eighth-placed Oaks also found a bit of form before Christmas, claiming wins against Withycombe and Pirates Amateurs.
Plymstock hope the break and the likely heavy pitch might work in their favour against the Ashes, who will be favourites.
“In some ways the Christmas break levels the playing field slightly as everyone has had a break and that stunts some momentum,” said Oaks coach Callum Cload, who is a former Saltash player.
“We are under no illusion about Saltash, they’re up there pushing for promotion for a reason.
“However, I believe the weather gods and the packs will have a big say in how the game goes. It won’t be great conditions so the ‘old fashioned’ rugby might be the way forward.”
Oaks are boosted by the return to fitness of Dave Hall and Connor McQueen, but they are still waiting for a number of others to make comebacks.
At Sandy Park, ninth-placed Tavistock will be hoping they can finally get a long awaited league win over 11th-placed Plymouth Argaum.
Argaum have not lost to Tavvy since their promotion to the Cornwall/Devon League in 2015. The Bickleigh Down club have won the last five meetings, including a 10-5 victory at Bickleigh Down earlier this season.
“They will want to finally get that win over us,” said Argaum secretary Stuart Quarterman.
“We have won the last five games against them, but that won’t have any bearing on this one. However, it should give us confidence.
“We just have to be really honest for the rest of the season.”
Argaum are only three points clear of the relegation zone and so need as many points as possible.
However, they have received a massive boost to their battle to stay up with the return to fitness of a number of key players.
The influential Dan James could be in contention to play this weekend. He has been out for more than 16 months after rupturing his ACL in the opening week of the 2016/17 season.
“He has been training for a couple of months, so his fitness should be okay, but obviously match fitness is different,” added Quarterman.
John Fulton and Mason Edwards should also be available for selection.
Tavistock also have players returning, like Dylan Penberthy and Dan Oner.
“I can’t believe the strength in numbers we’ve had training this week and the numbers of players available for the game, despite horrendous conditions and a bout of flu through the team,” said Tavistock coach Hammy Kerswill.
“We are really up for this game. We haven’t beaten Argaum in the last five and they are our closest rivals.
“Conditions, I believe, will be in their favour, but I think we have selected a team to get the result.
“The away fixture was a close affair that we lost 10-5. The second half conditions suited them but ultimately we were too soft up front. Hopefully, we can show our dominance at the scrum that has only really been exposed by Argaum at the away fixture.”
He added: “We are quite adamant on how we can win this game, but ultimately it will be tough – it always is against Argaum.”
Captain Andrew Schuttkacker will move into the second-row, alongside Oner, while Phil Wilson comes in at flanker. George Hillson will start again at full-back before returning to his studies at Hartpury College.
DEVON ONE AND TWO
Techs currently sit bottom of Devon One and are nine points off safety.
They know they have got home games against the likes of New Cross, Dartmouth and Exeter Saracens to come in the second half of the season, but this weekend they face a tricky trip to third-placed Totnes.
Techs did beat Totnes away last season in the David Butt Trophy and will be hoping they can cause a bit of a surprise on Saturday.
“There’s no two-ways about it, we know we have to start winning,” said Techs coach Shaun Bedford-Smith. “Every week is a big week for us now.”
He added: “We knew before the season started how tough it was going to be this season. This division is all about small percentages and margins. We just have to keep plugging away.”
Techs have not been helped this season by injuries to key players. Over the Christmas period they have lost back Paul Ansell to a broken thumb and forward Bryan Milford, who has had an operation on his hand.
Techs have performed well against Totnes in the past and Bedford-Smith is hoping his team can take confidence from that.
“We played some of our best rugby of the season in the first half against them earlier this season,” said the Techs coach. “But they had three really good players that managed to get them the win second half. We also probably took our foot of the gas a bit.”
Although Techs had a break from training over Christmas a number of their players did have a run out on New Year’s Day in their friendly 10s match with Tamar Saracens.
Tamar Saracens ended 2017 with back-to-back wins to move above Techs in the table and give themselves some hope of staying up.
South Molton beat them 42-11 at home in the second match of the campaign and Sarries are keen to prove a point on Saturday in north Devon.
“It is a tricky one, but we are hoping we can catch them a little bit off guard after Christmas and New Year,” said Saracens coach Chey Bryce.
“We have trained well this week. We had a fitness session on Tuesday to blow the cobwebs off a little bit.”
He added: “What happened at home was a bit embarrassing, but we have got lots of players available this weekend.”
Steve Hodge, Ryan Deakin and Tom Hicklin are among those returning, while Frazer Tatchell could also be back after a nasty head injury following a collision with Adam Corbett.
Corbett is still out, as is Lee Dolphin (broken ribs) and Marc Cioffi (broken jaw), but Bryce could make his long-awaited return to action following an ACL operation.
“I might play,” said Bryce. “I am chomping at the bit. I have done a lot of fitness testing and training, but nothing can really compare to match fitness. However, the only way to get match fitness is by playing a game, but we’ll see.”
If it does then OPMs could move back into the top three as second-placed Buckfastleigh play third-placed Ilfracombe this weekend.
OPMs did not have the first half of the season that they would have hoped, losing three of their seven matches, but they are just six points off a promotion spot and the likes of leaders North Tawton and Ilfracombe still have to visit King George V Playing Fields.
DHSOB’s game is another that could be in doubt due to the bad weather. They are due to host Salcombe at Stonehouse Creek.
If it is on, they will be hoping to build on their encouraging display against OPMs before Christmas. They were able to field their strongest side of the season and made OPMs work hard for their 36-0 win.
Salcombe are themselves having a tough campaign. They sit third-from-bottom, with only a walkover against DHSOB and a win over St Columba to their name.
Plympton Victoria were the surprise package in the first half of the season in Devon Two, winning three of their seven matches.
This weekend, though, they will be tested with a trip to unbeaten league leaders North Tawton.
Plym Vic, however, will take encouragement from their performance against North Tawton at Marsh Mills. Although they lost 45-29, they gave last year Devon One side a bit of a scare.