Hoppers up against leaders

Mo Mustafa returns to the front row for Preston Grasshoppers
Mo Mustafa returns to the front row for Preston Grasshoppers
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Darlington Mowden Park – unbeaten at home and leaders of rugby’s National League Two North – are the daunting opponents for Preston Grasshoppers tomorrow as they bid to record successive away victories for only the second time this season.

In their top-class Northern Echo Arena, Park have won all 10 games so far, and indeed have lost only twice in their 21 outings – at Macclesfield and Sedgley Park.

They are currently on a run of 11 victories in a row.

In contrast, Hoppers now find themselves in a dogfight around the halfway mark in the table.

They are 10th with 46 points – the same as the two clubs above them and one more than Caldy – but have played a game more than those other three.

Their win at Otley two weeks ago was only their fourth in 11 away trips.

But head coach Michael Lough said after last Saturday’s frustrating home defeat by Luctonians: “We’ll keep drilling the game plan.

“There is still work to be done but we have got to play with the same level of enthusiasm and commitment as we did this week.”

Hoppers lost 10-34 at home to DMP in October and last season’s meetings were high scorers, too – Preston won 34-0 at Lightfoot Green but lost 24-54 at Darlington.

Sean Taylor returns at full-back after England Counties duty and other changes see Sam Kendall return on the wing, Craig Aikman start at scrum-half and Brad Tuff and Mo Mustafa join Dan Madden in the front row.

Skipper Dominic Moon is set for his 100th first-team outing.

It is back to business in North One West after a week off and Vale of Lune seek their first victory since November 23 when Wilmslow head for Lancaster. In that time, they have played just six games, losing four and drawing two.

That includes a defeat and a draw in their last two home fixtures.

Full-back Nick Royle has shaken off the effects of the knock he suffered at Kendal a fortnight ago and forward Alex Baines is back in a mostly-unchanged squad after injury.

Just across the border, there is a Cumbrian derby when Kendal head for Kirkby Lonsdale.

The visitors are bidding for a fifth successive win and third away victory in a row.

Having won their last eight home games in National One, third-placed Fylde host Esher, just one place and two points behind them.

In fact, the Londoners have won more games – 14 out of 21 to Fylde’s 13 – but Mark Nelson’s men have six more bonus points. Esher have lost their last two away fixtures, but won six out of 11 on their travels.

They pipped Fylde 27-24 at Esher in October while both games last season went with home advantage, Fylde winning 39-22 at Ansdell but losing the return 24-33.

Centre Chris Briers and fly-half Chris Johnson are back after last week’s England Counties game, while Warren Spragg starts on the wing.

This weeks’ starting front row is Dan Birchall, Tom Burtonwood and Adam Lewis.

Hoppers: Taylor; Birchall, Baines, Ward, Kendall; Davies, Aikman; Madden, Tuff, Mustafa, Wallbank, Murray, Wallace, Webster, 
Moon.

Vale (from): Royle, Macluskie, Haigh, Carter, Higgin, Curran, Turton, Dobson; Hesketh, McLaren-Dorrington, Berry, A Cowey, Tudor, Foxcroft, Foy, Lin, Baines, Charnley.

Fylde: Viney; Spragg, C Briers, S Briers, Brennand; Johnson, De lar Harpe; Birchall, Burtonwood, Lewis, Arnold, Gore, Robinson, Vernon, Beaumont.