AFTER securing a top-four finish in their first season at level five and winning the county cup, Devonport Services have a lot to live up to in the 2023-24 campaign.
They will kick-off their Regional One South West season with a home game against newly-promoted Matson, who were unbeaten last term in the lower league.
“We want to get better,” said Devonport head coach Ben Russell ahead of the new campaign.
“We finished fourth last year, but we know if we don’t back it up and perform well then we won’t finish fourth this season.
“Barnstaple have replaced Camborne but they have been in the higher league for two or three seasons so they are going to be tough. We had good battles last season with Brixham and Chew – we were one-and-one with both of those in the league and in the cup we were one-and-one with Brixham.
“But then there were teams who finished below us who we also had good battles and who we were also one-and-one with, like Exmouth, Ivybridge and Okehampton.
“The league is so competitive, but the great thing is there’s more Devon and Cornwall sides than most.”
He added: “We have gone well in pre-season, but pre-season is pre-season. In this league everyone can beat everyone.
“There are no easy five points in this league. The teams in the league all deserve to be there and no-one is just going to turn up and just roll over.”
Services have lost a lost a few players from last season’s successful squad. Hooker Sam Bennett has retired, centres Tom Richards and Harrison Reburn have joined Plymstock Albion Oaks and prop Greg Thomas has returned to Launceston. However, there has been plenty of new arrivals at the Rectory over the summer including Dan Goldstone, Reuben Edwards, Ethan Millard, Mike Howell and Harrison Coonick.
“We have recruited more, which has driven up standards in training,” said Russell.
“I said at training this week there will be boys who are absolutely gutted to be in the twos this weekend and not the ones, but I said to them at the start that this is a squad effort and that because we are in two leagues we will be pushing in both to finish as high as we can.
“I said to them ‘you being cheesed off in my eyes is cracking as it shows you want to kick-on and you want to be in the ones, which means our twos should push on.’
Services’ second team are in Counties Two Devon and Russell is hoping they can be challenging in that league after struggling for consistency last season and finishing ninth.
“I’m not saying we are going to go and win it, but we want to be near the top this year and pushing,” said Russell about the second team.
“We are trying to build a competitive squad and we need boys in that second team who can easily play first team rugby as well. The boys should only be in the twos because someone else is playing better.
“Everyone knows they have to perform as people want their spots.”
Both Services teams have tricky starts. The first hosts newcomers Matson, while the seconds visit Honiton.
Matson will arrive in confident mood after not losing one single league game last season on their way to winning Regional Two Severn, which included teams like Chippenham, Thornbury, Newent and Keynsham, by a massive 21 points.
“Matson were unbeaten last season,” said Russell. “It is a big step up coming into this league – we knew that – but they are on a roll and unbeaten.
“I know they won 20 out of 20 league games last year but apart from that, all I know is that they are physical and they will be tough.
“We should have two good sides on paper this weekend but we can back that up with performances?”
IT HAS been a bit of a summer of change at Ivybridge with a new head coach, new chairman, some new players and a few departures.
Former Plymouth Albion hooker Davy McGregor has come in as the Bridgers’ new head coach after Jay Geraty, who was going to be it, ended up becoming chairman.
Long-serving prop Matt Finn was one of Ivybridge’s main departures in the summer, but the club have welcomed a few news faces during pre-seasson and four are in line to make their debuts against Launceston at Cross-in-Hand on Saturday.
Plymouth Albion youngster Taine Morgan was going to join Devonport Services on-loan but the Brickfields club have now sent him to Ivybridge, where they want him to transition from the back-row to wing.
Likely to be joining him in the matchday squad on Saturday will be fellow new arrivals Tom Hancocks, Sam Courtney and Dan Gloyns.
McGregor is looking forward to the start of the season.
“It is exciting,” he said.
“We had an old school possible v probables last week and it was really, really positive. Boys took it really seriously. It didn’t really matter about the result, but they just worked through their systems and implement what they had been doing.
“I hope the big change the boys see is the culture around the club and how they act off the pitch.
“We understand that it is a bit of a transition and a new era under a bit of a different coaching system, even though the guys that have been here before have done some fantastic work and made Ivybridge a very competitive side. But it is now about growing it and adding to it.
“We have a few new lads coming into the squad. They are boys that have been champing at the bit all summer and if they put in the effort then they deserve a shot.”
On what the targets are this season, McGregor said: “There are some things we want to keep in house, but for us it is about making sure boys are fighting for shirts and that it’s about the whole club each weekend. We want to set targets for the whole squad, both on and off the field.”
The club are trying to make sure everyone feels involved. They will have a mascot team each week and also have a ball kids’ club, which has got 44 members who will help out at the men’s and women’s games.
“It’s about everyone in the club feeling they have opportunity,” said McGregor.
Ivybridge have had some good battles with Launceston in recent years and they do not expect anything different this weekend.
“We know they are going to hold on to the ball really well, maul well and scrum well with big strong boys,” said McGregor.
“But for me, I have nothing to compare it with. It is a fresh start. There’s an opportunity there for lads to go out and get a result.
Ivybridge have made Saturday’s game free to watch and are hoping to attract a good crowd, with live music also on in the evening.
“The first game of the season is a really good celebration,” said McGregor. “It’s exciting and I think there’s an opportunity there to get a good crowd and for people to realise we are trying to do other things and change a few things.”
Ivybridge’s second team have a tough start to their Counties Two Devon season with a trip to last season’s runners-up Torquay Athletic.