Fylde welcome old friends and rivals Coventry to the Woodlands on Saturday (ko 3pm) in the latest of 64 years of fixtures - and in a game with very high stakes given the home club's league position. With England's opening game of the 6 Nations tournament against France being showed live in the Clubhouse (ko 4.50), it should be a top quality and exciting afternoon at the Ground.
Fylde have fared pretty well against their heavy hitting opponents at the Woodlands, winning four of out of five games since 2011/12. The Lancastrians fate at the Butts Park Arena have been less successful. But they did notch a double victory last season, winning 36-24 in the Midlands and 25-14 at the Woodlands.
Fylde wave thankfully goodbye to a very tough January in which they have lost four successive matches, three on the road. They have slipped to 13th in National One and will be very anxious to get back to winning ways against the Midlanders, currently in 7th place.
After a bright start to the season and some big home wins, Cov have stumbled away from the Butts Arena. Of their seven defeats to date, six have been away from home. Their away wins have been at Hull Ionians and Macclesfield and they earned a draw at Darlington MP. On home territory they have been victorious in ten matches, slipping up just once, narrowly, against Hartpury College (23-27). They have won a number of these narrowly and have shown resilience and real fighting qualities. They have also run up a number of big home wins, including thumping Fylde by 53-24 in October.
Although old rivals, the two clubs have very different infrastructure and resources. Cov have a fine stadium, a host of blue chip sponsors, a big city base and ambitions to get back to the RFU Championship as soon as possible. These ambitions have been given expression in a major development phase which began earlier in 2016. An aggressive business strategy led by Chairman Jon Sharp is based on the utilisation of their Butts Park Arena assets and the development of various commercial opportunities in the city, including reaching a ground sharing deal to bring Coventry City FC to the Arena.
On the 1st team front, a new full-time Director of Rugby, Rowland Winter (formerly with rivals Cambridge RFC), was appointed in the spring of 2016 and he built a new team of coaches and support staff. In turn, last season's squad of players was heavily culled and reinforced by the recruitment of a batch of newcomers from home and abroad. This has been the pattern at Coventry in recent seasons but this time it's intended to plan for the long term, setting a firm foundation this season. If Fylde have punched above their collective weight in the last five years, Cov have under performed, much to the frustration of their considerable spectator base. Nevertheless, they are still the best supported club in National One.
With Premiership giants Wasps now based at the Ricoh Arena in the city, observers have wondered whether this would strengthen or weaken Cov's position. The jury is still out on this but there are heartening signs that the size of crowds at Butts Park haven't shrunk - indeed, the gates have increased by 7% compared with last season. On the playing front there is closer collaboration between the two clubs, with a handful of young Wasps players joining the club on a dual registration basis and they have done very well.
Roland Winter's new coaches have an enormous amount of top level playing experience even if more limited time on the coaching front. On the playing front, prominent pack signings included front row options, prop Phil Boulton (ex-Bedford Blues) and hooker Scott Tolmie (Birmingham Moseley & London Irish Wild Geese); locks Tom Jubb & Rob Conquest (both Darlington Mowden Park. Conquest has just returned to DMP); backrowers Irish U'20s and 7s international Eoghan Grace (ex-Ealing T., Exeter Chiefs, Plymouth Albion & Connacht), Darrell Dyer (ex-Ampthill, Bedford Blues & Northampton Saints) and England Counties U'20s Sam Harry (ex-Loughborough S).
New backs include influential flyhalf Anthony Fenner (ex-Limoges, Auckland, Edinburgh & Bedford Blues), fly-half/centre Will Maisey (Nottingham & Ampthill), fullback James Stokes (Cambridge RFC & Leicester Lions), wing Corey Hircock (Cambridge & Bedford Blues), scrum-halves Pete White (ex-Bedford Blues & Stourbridge) and England Counties cap Rhodri Adamson (ex-Blaydon & Newcastle Falcons).
More established, influential players include long term hooker Matt Price, backrower Brett Daynes and centre Tom Wheatcroft.
Fylde make five changes in their starting line-up from that at Plymouth Albion. In the backline, Scott Armstrong returns on the wing and Greg Smith at fly-half. In the pack, Tom Burtonwood and Jonny Wild are in the front row and Matt Rogerson returns in the back row. The replacements include experienced campaigners Ben Vernon and Jordan Dorrington after injury, and Alex Loney is available to cover hooker once more. A new face to the squad is prop Leyton Taylor who joins on loan from Rossendale. He has played a few games for the Hawks.
Unvailable for selection was the Sale Sharks pair Jake Pope, who is with England U'20s, and George Nott, with the Sharks senior squad.
Referee: Llyr ApGeraint-Roberts; AR1 Tudor Griffiths, AR2 Steve Halliday.