Hoppers Dew win on season opener

Phil Baines

Phil Baines

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The new season gets under way this weekend with Preston Grasshoppers, Vale of Lune, Fylde and Kendal all at home – and with new coaching set-ups in place at Hoppers and Vale.

It was announced some time ago that Garth Dew has taken over from Michael Lough at Lightfoot Green and will be assisted by Alan Holmes (forwards) and John Kirkpatrick (backs).

But a much more recent – and surprising – appointment was Vale’s recruitment of former England and Ireland coach Brian Ashton as a “mentor” to support new coaches Fergus Owens and Phil Stott.

Ashton, who was most recently coaching at Fylde, is returning to the city where he was a Lancaster Royal Grammar School pupil because he is impressed by the enthusiasm on display at what he calls “a local club for local players”.

There has, as usual, been plenty of summer activity on the player-recruitment front.

Hoppers have lost full-back Sean Taylor to Ballymena, scrum-half Craig Aikman, who has retired, prop Chris Gale, who has emigrated, and back-five forward Sam Wallbank, who has returned to Vale.

But they have signed lock Reece Tomlinson from Kendal, backs Ollie Carter from Vale, Billy Woof from Birkenhead Park and forwards Dan White from rugby league and Luke Clitheroe from Fylde.

Centre Reg Whittam and full-back John Embleton join Hoppers after time out of the game.

With Dominic Moon still recovering from summer surgery, Phil Baines is the new Hoppers skipper and Ally Murray becomes vice-captain.

Hoppers’ first visitors are Hull, who finished just outside the relegation zone last season following nine wins and 21 defeats. Preston ended two places above them, with four more victories, after doing the double with a 30-22 away win and 43-13 home victory.

There are debuts for Embleton and Tomlinson, along with centre Tom Hurst, who is second-team captain. Lewis Allen and Sam Kindred are the starting half-backs, and the bench includes the pack experience of John Peterson and Rich Morton, who is hoping for his 200th first-team appearance.

Vale begin with a visit from Kirkby Lonsdale, the nearest of their five Cumbrian rivals.

Hoppers: Embleton; Trueman, Baines, Hurst, Kendall; Allen, Kindred; Madden, Mills, Altham, Tomlinson, Murray, Wallace, Lees, Taylor.

Vale: Ball; Dobson, Macluskie, Lomas, Bird; Squirrel, Swarbrisk; Smith, Gardnner, Pillow, Charnley, Fellows, D Baines, A Baines, Wallbank.

Vale won this fixture 46-31 last year but later lost 7-13 at Kirkby Lonsdale, who went on to finish the season in fifth place, compared to Vale’s eighth.

Baines, Wallbank and Bird are straight back into the starting line-up, which also features a pair of 18-year-old half-backs who have come through the Powderhouse Lane colts system – Jake Squirrel and Billy Swarbrick, son of Powderhouse Lane favourite Steve.

There are debuts for another couple of local lads, centre Charlie Lomas and hooker Matt Gardner. Baines is joined in the back row by brother Alex and new skipper Wallbank.

In addition to Macclesfield and Darlington Mowden Park, new opponents for Fylde in National One this season are Hartpury College and Ealing Trailfinders. Gone are promoted Doncaster and relegated Hull Ionians, Worthing Raiders and Henley Hawks.

Fylde have also been busy recruiting, with brothers Gareth and Scott Rawlings joining from Longton. Scott is a centre while lock Gareth had a previous spell at Ansdell. Back-row forward David Fairbrother has come from Fleetwood while centre Tommy Banks returns to Fylde after time with Blaydon.

The club will have to manage for a while without lock Gareth Gore, who is recovering from an operation, and full-back Ollie Viney, who has work and family commitments.

Most of the newcomers are expected to feature in the opening game, at home to Blackheath, but selection has been delayed for fitness checks on one or two players expected to be in the starting line-up.

Blackheath ended last term in eighth place while Fylde men finished fourth with 17 wins out of 30, including the double over the Londoners (31-29 away, 33-17 at home). Blackheath recorded 13 victories and three draws.

Kendal open with a visit from Birkenhead Park, who won 72-14 at home 72-14 and 15-20 at Mint Bridge last year. Park finished second but missed out on promotion in a play-off, while Kendal were fourth.

Hoppers: Embleton; Trueman, Baines, Hurst, Kendall; Allen, Kindred; Madden, Mills, Altham, Tomlinson, Murray, Wallace, Lees, Taylor.

Vale: Ball; Dobson, Macluskie, Lomas, Bird; Squirrel, Swarbrisk; Smith, Gardnner, Pillow, Charnley, Fellows, D Baines, A Baines, Wallbank.