Rugby

RUGBY PREVIEWS: Clubs finally ready to go again after 18-month break

SOUTH WEST PREMIER

IVYBRIDGE will be kicking off the new rugby season in bumper style this weekend with four senior sides in action.

On Saturday, their first team will travel to newly-promoted Hornets in the South West Premier league, while their seconds will host Gloucestershire touring side Longlevens and their thirds/vets will play another touring team, Ollerton from Nottinghamshire. Then on Sunday, their new women’s side, coached by Georgina and Ben Gulliver, will travel to Bath for a friendly.

The fact that Ivybridge can get four senior teams out in one weekend shows that the club has been one of the few to actually grow during the last 18 months when there has not been any competitive rugby due to the global coronavirus pandemic.

With two groups of colts coming through to the senior ranks since they last played a league game and experienced players like Cameron Setter and Sam Furse joining the Bridgers this summer, optimism is high for the first team at Cross-in-Hand.

“I think we are in a good position,” said head coach Gareth Elliott. “We have a good squad. We have a lot of really good guys going to miss out on the first selection so that shows we have a bit of depth there.

“But this season is a bit unknown as we have no real gauge of form for anyone else as you can’t read too much into pre-season games.

“I think there will be some interesting results in the first three or four weeks.

“But I’m really looking forward to it. It was great to get back into rugby and now getting back into the competitive stuff is even more exciting.”

Prop George Montgomery is one of the former colts likely to be handed his league debut this weekend. Former England Counties Under-18 winger Matt Burns is also likely to start. His senior career has been hit by a season-long injury and then Covid, but, judging on pre-season form, he appears keen to really make his mark in the South West Premier this season.

Ivybridge have also been boosted by highly-rated flanker Adam Northcott opting to stay at Cross-in-Hand, despite interest from Plymouth Albion, while utility back Setter has returned after eight years at Brickfields.

Other players returning to the club this year are Matt Finn and Hayden Coles.

The Bridgers finished eighth in the 2019-20 season and have always proved competitive since moving into the league.

Elliott said the team had not set any targets ahead of pre-season but he was planning on speaking to them ahead of Saturday’s trip to Hornets to talk about their goals.

“We are going to have a sit down,” he said. “We talked a little bit about the goals for the season at the start of pre-season but now we just want to refine them.

“We want to get the players’ views on what they want from the season. It is all about them really. We want them to think about what motivates them and why they are playing. It is important to do that after such a long break. Hopefully, goals will come out of that.”

Their opponents on Saturday, Hornets, impressed in a strong South West One in 2019-20.

“It is a case of literally going into this game blind,” said Elliott. “You just don’t know what you are going to get. That is why it is so important to just focus on yourselves.

“I think we are in a pretty good spot, even though we have had a couple of pre-season games cancelled but that was always likely to happen given the current times.”

He added: “I am also looking forward to the (Devon) Merit Table this season because we have got a good group of second team players and some young guys who need to just play and get used to rugby again. Hopefully, we will get some good games there.”

SOUTH WEST ONE (WEST)

DEVONPORT Services were not far away from joining Ivybridge in the South West Premier in the 2019-20 season.

They were pushing hard for promotion from South West One but when the league season was ended early due to the Covid lockdown, they were given fourth place on the RFU formula.

There has been quite a few changes at the Rectory since then.  A number of players have come and gone and Stuart Busfield has joined Mike Lewis’ backroom team.

However, Services did receive a big boost this week when Launceston’s highly-rated prop Greg Thomas asked to join them, following in the footsteps of fellow front-rower Rikki Bentham.

“He just answered all our front-row prays,” said Mike Lewis. “He’s a tight-head and one of the best scrummages around

“We’ve also got (hooker) Sam Bennett back and we’ve got Rikki Bentham who we haven’t really seen play yet.”

Another new important addition to Devonport’s ranks this summer is Tom Richards, who has joined them from Plymstock Albion Oaks.

“He has been a breath of fresh air coming in at 12,” said Lewis. “He’s a confident boy on the pitch who knows what he needs to do and has a great skill set and reads the game so well. I think he’s fantastic – one of the most under-rated players I have seen. His arrival has changed the way we play in the backline and it looks really exciting.”

But Services have lost a few key players. Winger Corey Jamieson has started his own business and so could not commit to playing in South West One so has returned to Plymstock, while fellow back Kyle Browne is taking a break from rugby.

Lewis admits those two were worth 30 tries a season, but added: “Matt Nayle has come on leaps and bounds and really put his hand up to take charge and Tom Richards has come in.

“We still have Tom Goodman in there and Rhys Williams. We also have Keane (Whittaker) who wants to play on the wing now and he will take some stopping when he gets the ball. We have so many options in terms of a really dynamic backline. We also still have Toby Knowles, who had a couple of fantastic pre-season games, and Toby Moss – boys who are unbelievable skilful.

“In the forwards we have Aaron Webb back and he just adds a different style to the back-row.”

However, Services, like a lot of teams, are struggling to get their first choice side out this week.

“You would think for the first game of the season after so long out everyone would be itching to play,” said Lewis. “But because people haven’t been able to go away on holiday and stuff like that they are having to put their families first.

“You always do have that bit of a battle at this time of the year.”

He added: “I think it is going to be such a rollercoaster ride this year – much worse than normal – with player unavailabilities due to Covid and family issues and stuff. You will get more of it because people have had to change their lives. I have had to get a new job doing something I have never done and lots of other people have done that.

“I understand the situation and all clubs are going to have highs and lows.

“I think you are going to see a league where everyone can beat everyone but with some really obscure results sometimes.”

Services start their season with a home match against newly-promoted St Austell, who are coached by Lewis’ former Albion team-mate Kyle Marriott.

St Austell have shown their intent this summer by signing Cornwall and England Counties star Matt Shepherd from Plymouth Albion.

“They will be looking to make a name for themselves in the league,” said Lewis. “Sidmouth were like that the year before after they got promoted and they ended up one of the best teams in the league.

“When a team gets promoted it can go one of two ways. Looking at the results in their pre-season games it looks like they are going to go pretty well.

“But we are quite excited about this season and what we have with our backline and the team we have.

“We are a bit raw in places, but the skills level and quality is phenomenal. We are quite excited.”

CORNWALL/DEVON LEAGUE

THE Cornwall/Devon League might just be the hardest league in the South West to try and predict this season.

From the 2019-20 campaign – the last one played – Truro and Paignton went up and Exeter Athletic and South Molton went down. Those sides have been replaced by Saltash, Withycombe, Hayle and Newquay.

Plymstock Albion Oaks finished third last time out – missing out on promotion by just 0.37 of a point on the RFU’s formula.

Oaks were really flying before the enforced 18-month break for Covid and they know it will be hard to regain that momentum again.

“I feel like the momentum we had before Covid has gone,” admitted player-coach Aiden Taylor. “We have lost several players and we are on a bit of a rebuild again.

“It is just about trying to get lads to enjoy their rugby again and then go from there.

“Everything is a bit up in the air as we don’t know what other teams are like.”

Former Plymouth Albion and Devon boss Dan Parkes is now Plymstock’s head coach.

And there has been quite a few player changes at Horsham Fields. Prop James McFarlane has joined Plymouth Albion, while Tom Richards has also moved up the leagues by signing for Devonport Services. Hayden Coles has returned to Ivybridge, but on the plus side Corey Jamieson has returned from Services and scrum-half Luke Kenny has also moved to Horsham Fields from the Rectory.

“Corey is a massive signing and Luke Kenny has come to us and so has Mike Hunt,” said Taylor. “But Tom Richards and Spud (James McFarlane) were two big players for us.”

Taylor admits pre-season has not been as good as they would have liked.

“It has been a stop-start pre-season, with Covid issues, so it has been frustrating and been hard work, to be honest.”

But Taylor is glad competitive rugby is back this weekend. Oaks will start with a tough trip to the Pirates Amateurs before visiting Withycombe and then having derby games with Saltash and Tavistock.

“We always seem to get the Pirates away in the first or second game,” said Taylor.

“We start with two away games on the bounce and then we are at home to Saltash, so it’s not an easy start for us.

“I don’t know too much about them (Pirates) other than they have signed a few good players.

“But it will just be good to play some competitive rugby again.

“I think it’s going to be competitive and everyone will be able to beat everyone with maybe one team running away with it – that’s what normally happens in this league.”

TAVISTOCK are hoping they can be one of the surprise packages in the Cornwall/Devon League.

Tavistock just avoided relegation last time out, but have strengthened since then.

Influential scrum-half George Hillson is back from Hartpury College and takes on the role of joint captain with Martin Budden. Tavistock have also welcomed Jake Le Gassick, Stuart Ansell, Mark Tween and Jack Osborne to their club to add some depth.

“We are raring to go,” said player coach Hammy Kerswill. “We have got a backline this season – well, two backlines almost – which is something we haven’t had for five or six years.

“I think we are more all-rounded this season. (Head coach) Joel (Caddy) has brought a lot of ideas in with Chaps (Darren Chapple), which is good. We don’t feel there is any position lacking. Obviously, we could always do with some more numbers for even more strength in depth, but every position is filled with someone and someone else who can play first team, which is quite exciting.

“I wouldn’t like to make any predictions as we really don’t know about other teams, but we are quite confident we can compete by having a backline. Our scrum has always held its own and our line-out has been okay. Our backline has been good whenever we have had numbers, but we’ve just not had enough.”

Tavistock start their season with a trip to newly-promoted Newquay Hornets.

“We don’t know much about Newquay,” said Kerswill. “But it is always hard going away for the first game.

“You never know what you are going to get with a newly-promoted team, but I’m sure they will be up for it. It will be interesting to see what they have got.”

He added: “This season it is quite nice going in fresh and not knowing what everyone has got. It is anyone’s game really.

“It will just be good to go out and play what is in front of us. Hopefully, we can get some results.”

Osborne and Le Gassick will make their debuts for Tavistock at Newquay, while their second team, captained by James Lovering, will host Plympton Victoria in a joint Devon Merit Table and Ellis Trophy clash.

SALTASH will feel they should not really be in the Cornwall/Devon League.

When the 2019-20 season was ended a month early due to the Covid lockdown in March 2020 the RFU used a formula to decide the final places and Saltash were relegated from Western Counties West by just 0.30 of a point.

“We were relegated on a technicality,” said Saltash head coach Steve Down. “We still feel we were building really well towards the end of that season and so felt a little bit hard done by with the relegation.”

The Ashes are currently rebuilding their team with some of their older players stepping down and a new crop of youngsters coming through.

“We have lost a couple of older heads who are not available, but you never know they may come back,” said Down. “However, I do have faith in the youth and the guys that are still here.

“And I do think we have good competition for most places.

“I think when we went to (Devonport) Services (in pre-season) we showed in that first half that we are still a quality outfit.

“I think we are still a level seven/eight team and so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be fighting at the top.

“I want us to keep that mentality that we have just come down so we should be near the top.”

Like a number of clubs, Saltash have found it hard to get players to commit to training in pre-season but in the last few weeks numbers have started picking up.

“I think a few weeks ago we had just a nailed on 15 for the first team but now we are in a better position as we now have 25, which is good,” said assistant head coach Steve Hall.

“I think as a club we are a bit short for second team rugby, but from a league perspective I think we have a reasonable side.”

Just like everyone else in the Cornwall/Devon League, Saltash are unsure what their opponents will be like.

“We’ve heard the rumours about some of the sides that we will come across, but you don’t know,” added Hall.

“They are talking about restructuring the leagues so our aim is to try and finish in the top three or four so whatever happens with that restructure we will be in the mix.

“I think we are at that stage now where we need to take a three year look at where we want to be and bring some of the youngsters through and develop them for the future as you need that competition for positions.

“We do have a really good youth and colts structure and we are starting to see that flourish and develop with players coming through.”

Saltash face a tricky trip to North Tawton on Saturday in their first match.

“As I remember they (North Tawton) are always a team that do well at home, but maybe don’t travel as well,” said Hall. “But when you get them on their own turf they are very different opposition.”

Liskeard-Looe are another team who have a fair share of young players coming through.

They beat Bodmin 36-3 away in pre-season, but know they will face a much tougher test this weekend when they host Topsham.

DEVON ONE

OVER the past few years Devon One rugby has been getting stronger and stronger and, despite an 18-month break due to Covid, few are expecting this season to be any different.

Judging by some of the signings made by clubs at level nine it appears the global pandemic has led to some players opting to play closer to home rather than at a higher level with more travelling.

Once again there is certainly no shortage of Plymouth derby games in Devon One with four of the 13 sides – Old Techs, OPMs, Plymouth Argaum and Tamar Saracens – from the city.

There will be three city derby games in the opening three weeks of the season, starting with OPMs v Old Techs on the opening day at Elburton.

OPMs finished third last time out in the curtailed 2019-20 season, but they know that will not be easy to repeat this season with South Molton and Exeter Athletic coming down from the higher league and Salcombe coming up from the Devon Merit Table.

“With new sides coming into the league it is very difficult to predict,” said OPMs head coach Rick Orkney.

“We were hoping to build on what we did two years ago – we finished third which was above expectations – but numbers have been a bit low, we have been hit by Covid, a couple of players have retired, we have a couple long-term injured so whether that is realistic or not, we don’t know.

“We also don’t know the strength of the other sides in the league, like the South Moltons of this world.

“Last time we finished third but we didn’t pump anyone but nor were we pumped so that shows there’s not an awful lot between a lot of the sides.

“I think Tamar Saracens will be there or there abouts, but I am hoping we will be in the top five. If we are not top five I will be disappointed.

“I think all the local Plymouth sides will be strong.

“And it is a real baptism of fire to start with Old Techs. We better be ready for that and I think we will be now after playing Saltash and Tamar Saracens (in pre-season).”

Old Techs finished seventh last time out but they proved on their day they could beat anyone but struggled a bit with consistency.

They hope they can address that this year and have strengthened their squad this summer with the arrival of Paul Bethwick, Phil Coverdale, Ben Hill, Harley Adams and Jensen Baker and the return of Shane Abrew, James Douglas and Nick Dorrian.

“Our pre-season has gone really well,” said chairman Dave Evans. “We’ve had plenty of numbers at training and a lot of players have come back after having a season off.

“I do think we have got a bit more strength in depth now.”

Teams are not quite sure what they are playing for this season with a planned restructuring of the leagues taking place next year.

“Whatever happens there’s still pride to play for,” said Evans. “Old Techs always try to win anyway. We are not just going to sit back and let someone steam-roll us.”

For the second season running, Techs have to visit King George V Playing Fields to face OPM on the opening day.

“We seem to start with them every year,” said Evans. “We are not even at home next week as we have been given two away games to start with. It would be nice to play at home at the start.

“We have a few unavailable this week but we should have a decent side out. The last time we went there we lost and it is horrible to lose your first game, especially to one of your local rivals. So we will be up for it.

“I don’t think there will be a lot between the Plymouth sides this year.”

Tamar Saracens are unlucky still to be in Devon One after finishing as runners-up in the league behind Withycombe in 2019-20.

Normally the second-placed side in Devon One plays the Cornwall One runners-up, but due to Covid that play-off game could not take place and rugby officials decided to promote two Cornish teams to level eight and only one from Devon.

Saracens felt they were ready for the Cornwall/Devon League and are now worried that next year’s planned restructuring of the leagues might hit their hopes again of moving up the pyramid.

But they have certainly shown their ambition this season by bringing in former Plymouth Albion hooker Davy McGregor as their new head coach and adding to their squad with the likes of Joe Wyatt, Tommy Pullinger, Ryan Currie, Mark Woodhall and Matt Trotters.

They have also entered their second team in the Devon Merit Table and done quite a bit of work to their ground.

In pre-season they lost to higher league Tavistock and Veor but beat fellow Devon One side OPMs.

“I think we just need a bit more consistency in our numbers. We seem to have a different team every week, but that’s mainly down to holidays, illness and that kind of thing,” said new coach McGregor.

“I do think we have a very good 16 or 17 and the challenge is for the fringe players to step up, but I think we are now better for getting that win (against OPMs).”

McGregor admits it is a bit frustrating that they don’t know exactly what they are actually playing for at the start of the season due to the planned restructuring of the leagues.

“There was that news about no promotion and relegation but my view, and that of the club’s, is that games are still there to be won and a marker to be set,” said McGregor. “At the end of the day, rugby is more enjoyable when you are winning.

“Hopefully, we can use each weekend as an opportunity to learn and get that enjoyment factor.”

But he added: “I understand what the RFU want to try and achieve but I think they need to look at it and realise that boys have not played a lot of rugby and competition is what brings spark to rugby, otherwise you should just call it a friendly league.  They need to respect that certain clubs have ambitions.

“Some people may not have played rugby for 18 months and they maybe in their final season or two and they may miss out on an opportunity to be part of a promotion as such.

“But obviously from our perspective we just want to win each game.”

Sarries start their league campaign with a tough trip to Exeter Athletic, who have just come down from the Cornwall/Devon League.

Sarries could be without new signing Wyatt for that game after he suffered a facial injury against OPMs last weekend.

After a tough few seasons, Plymouth Argaum hope their fortunes are about to change.

Like their city rivals, there is plenty of optimism around their club this year.

Argaum have probably had more changes than any other of the city Devon One sides during the extended break.

They have welcomed a new coach, new players and a new chairman, who are all keen to try and bring good times back to the Roborough-based club.

Former Plymouth Albion flanker Brett Stroud took over as head coach after Argaum finished ninth in the 2019-20 campaign.

He is hoping his team can surprise a few people this season as they look to turn the club’s momentum.

“We are ready,” said Stroud. “We are an old club who have been around a long time – 127 years – but we are a relatively new team with new aspects of coaching and the way we want to play.

“We have recruited well. We have a squad of 26 – we just need 26 available on the day – and I think we will be good.

“Our targets are just to take it week by week, game by game.

“I am going to set this team up to play the best we can and get them all to give 110 per cent to try and get some wins. Then we will just see where we are at the end of the season.

“It is literally just about having numbers on feet. The squad we have is good but it is about getting that squad to games and not having any injuries.”

Argaum already suffered one major blow in pre-season when scrum-half Toby Studds suffered a terrible broken leg that left him in hospital for two weeks and needing five operations.

“I am glad Toby Studds is out of hospital now,” said Stroud. “After that injury he suffered against Wadebridge everyone was a little bit down as it was a bad break for a young lad, but I’m glad he is out of hospital.”

With Studds ruled out, former rugby league player Billy Stockwell has been playing at nine and he has formed a new-look half-back partnership with Tom Shepherd, who has returned to playing after a three-year break.

“I think he and Tom Sheps could be a good nine-10 combination for us this season,” said Stroud.

“Across the board we have some experience, some youth and competition.”

Argaum have welcomed back a number of former players this summer including Tom Holliday, Mitch Coles, Ali Jones and Jack Morris and signed new players like Toby Colyer, Ollie Rosewll, Craig Meleady, George Seymour, Dion Allison and Tom McVeigh .

They begin their campaign with a trip to New Cross – one of the three teams to finish below them last time.

They then have derby games against OPMs and Old Techs before games against Totnes and Salcombe.

Off the field, Peter Kelly has become their new chairman, with Stuart Quarterman returning to the committee as vice-chair.

Kelly is former Royal Marine and entrepreneur. He is CEO and co-founder of Imployable –a career management app company based at Estover.

Kelly’s son plays for Argaum’s under-nines and he wants to bring his business brain to the club to help develop it properly.

“Where Brett is trying to transform the team on the field, I’m going to try and transform the club off the field,” said Kelly.

“I want to help give Brett the infrastructure that will help bring success on the field.

“We are also looking at how we can make the club a community asset. Community development is important. We want to build the club around families and attract young people into the club and into sport.”

Argaum want their clubhouse to become a focal point for the Roborough/Woolwell community, which could nearly double in size in the next few years if development plans go ahead.

DEVON MERIT TABLE

MOST sides in Devon Merit Table Division Two South & West do have another week or two to prepare for the start of their seasons.

All have found it pretty tough to find pre-season fixtures and so no-one really knows how strong each team is going to be.

Devonport High School Old Boys have undergone plenty of changes during the Covid break.

They are due to play their home games on the top pitch at Brickfields and use Plymouth Albion as a clubhouse.

They have a new-look coaching team headed up by Dan Pengelly, with Chris Smaldon stepping up from the juniors to look after the forwards and Alex Buckley, Scotty Pearson and Lewis Jeffrey also involved in the leadership team.

“This pre-season so far has proved that the rebuild campaign has been an overwhelming success,” said Pengelly.

“With over 20 at each training session during pre-season we have had our highest number of new player members in years with over 30 players opting for the premium membership largely down to the new four-year VX3 kit deal we have signed.

“More club legends have returned with the likes of Huey Simmons coming back to club after stints with St Columba and Ryan Tunnicliffe from Old Techs.

“The future looks bright as 50 per cent of the squad are now sponsored by local businesses.

“Our aim is to challenge for a top three spot in the Merit Table this season.”

DHSOB are also hoping to get permission from the RFU to link their junior section with Plymouth Albion.

But DHSOB have lost their Fijian contingent, who have formed their own team and entered the Devon Merit Table themselves.

Mike Freeman, Darren Rosevear and Steve Chapman are helping Plymouth Fijians find their feet.

The club are hoping to use Central Park as their home, but are still waiting on Plymouth City Council to confirm that the pitch is ready and they can use it. They have asked for Stonehouse Creek as a back-up.

“We are hoping Central Park will come up trumps,” said Freeman. “But it is a bit of a headache at the moment, especially with Covid.

“We have arranged most of our games up until January away to give us a bit more time.

“In terms of the team, (coach) Rab (Seru) seems quite optimistic things will be fine. I think we will be all right once we get going and should have a reasonable side.”

The Fijians are hoping to have a run out against St Columba & Torpoint and the Peninsula Medical School this weekend at Defiance Field.

St Columba & Torpoint are hosting an RFU ‘Pitch-up for Rugby’ event this weekend, which will involve men’s, women’s and youth games.

They recently went to the Weston Beach Rugby Festival and have been rebuilding over the summer, as well as working hard to improve their clubhouse for the new season.

Saints are due to get their league campaign underway next weekend with a home game against Tavistock II.

Plympton Victoria have been quietly going about their business like usual. They do start their season on Saturday with a tough league and Ellis Trophy trip to Tavistock II.

“We are as ready as we can be,” said Plym Vic’s Chris Hunt. “We were supposed to play two friendlies against the (Westcountry) Wasps but they cried off and we couldn’t get fixtures at short notice. Everyone seems to have been either really busy or really short of players.

“I think it is just a case of getting out there and seeing what happens. It will just be nice to get back and play some games again, certainly at our level.

“Other teams might have pretentions but we haven’t. It’ll just be nice to get out there and start again.”

He added: “We have had a couple of players leave and go back to old clubs, but we’ve attracted a few over the summer. We have generally ended up all right, but it is the tail end of the holiday season so we’ll have to see.

“We are just looking forward to starting again and getting back into the rhythm.”

Plym Vic will now be using the British Legion near their St Mary’s pitch as their after-match base, which they hope will prove successful.

The Peninsula Medical School, Tamar Saracens II and OPM Jesters have also joined Devon Merit Table Division Two South & West this season.

Tens of the 13 teams in that division will be Plymouth Combination teams with the other three south Devon clubs.

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