The new National One season gets under way on Saturday, with both Tynedale and Blaydon shaping up nicely.
Stability has been the buzzword at the North East’s pair of representatives, two leagues down from the Premiership, with coaching set-ups and the core of their playing squad remaining the same.
Once again Tom Borthwick holds the reins for Tynedale – the Cumbrian providing steady stewardship as the Corbridge club look to improve on last season’s 12th-placed finish in the 16-team division.
It was a campaign which dangled them uncomfortably close to the relegation snake-pit for a couple of months after Christmas, as injuries once again took a toll on a squad whose injury list was regularly well into double figures.
Captain Jack Harrison will again be in the thick of things from midfield, with only minimal numbers in the outgoing column.
Centre Tom Bramwell has made the short move to Blaydon, while hooker Dave Cherry has departed for Scottish rugby with Edinburgh-based outfit, Currie.
Sam Reynolds has returned to London after a single season to work as a rugby development officer in the Richmond area, back-line runner Harry Mountain is travelling round Australia and wing Alex Fieldhouse has also moved on for work reasons.
In their place come a raft of useful signings, most notably in the back three, where Sep Visser makes a welcome return.
The Dutchman was the league’s top try-scorer two years ago before heading north to try and carve out a professional career with Edinburgh, and while he fell just short short of brother Tim in that regard, his ability to find the try-line in National One is unquestioned.
Former Newcastle Falcon Andy Buist could provide the experienced head Tynedale need in the second row, and much attention during the first few months will be on whether the 29-year-old’s body has recovered sufficiently from the injury that ended his Premiership career three years ago.
The early reports seem positive, and in the pivotal position of scrum-half the decision of Harry Peck to study at Cambridge University has not ended the prospects of the Northumberland county cap turning out in Tynedale colours, when available.
Pace will be in no short supply thanks to the signing of Westoe wing Dominic Rundle, who has made a mark for the HFW Wailers on the GB7s scene, and the availability of Beasley brothers, Gavin and Grant, comes as a further boost.
Dual registration once again sees Newcastle Falcons trio Chris Harris, Scott Wilson and George McGuigan allocated to Corbridge, with former Durham University back-rower Harrison Collins and ex-Durham School stand-off Craig Willis added to the blend.
Blaydon, too, have had their share of dual-registration players, with the back three taking a particular boost in the form of Sean Brown, Tom Penny and Zach Kibirige.
Brown scored twice against his prospective future club last weekend in Falcons’ Development XV colours as Blaydon fell 19-12, but it was a game which showed the traditional forward power of the Crow Trees club.
Once again scoring a pair of tries from close-range line-outs, a forward pack led by Durham county skipper Chris Wearmouth will be among the toughest nuts for the league to crack.
Carrying on from their highest ever league placing after last season’s third-place finish, director of Micky Ward has gone for consistency rather than bringing in a whole wave of new faces. Gone are centres Charles Incledon and Sam Hanks after completing their studies in the North East, Tynedale’s Bramwell and Northumberland county midfield man Tom Grimes helping fill the gap.
Fly-half Andrew Baggett will again be relied upon for directionand goal-kicking at fly-half, Ward stating: “It will be tough to follow up last year. I will be setting myself a target of where I want us to finish, but I won’t be telling people.
“We have not had a massive turnover of players, and have kept hold of pretty much everybody who was with us last season.
“We have brought in a back-rower called Harry Bate and a hooker, Fran Entressengle, from the local universities, and I think we have a little more quality in the backs this time round.
“We still have the forward pack which people know us for, and we will be competitive against whichever team we are playing.
“Guys who came to us lastseason have also had another year to settle.”
Neither Blaydon nor Tynedale have easy openers on Saturday, the former hosting Loughborough Students and the latter travelling to Henley Hawks.
That then leads to derby day in Corbridge a week later – a game which could well offer a clearer picture of where the balance of power rests between the region’s two National One representatives.