Preston Grasshoppers may lie 10th in National League Two North approaching the halfway point in the season, but head coach Garth Dew acknowledges: “We ARE in a scrap at the bottom.”
The 30 points they have collected so far leaves them nine clear of the relegation zone but their form has not been consistent enough to keep those niggling anxieties at bay, especially with a trip tomorrow to fourth-placed Caldy, whom Dew admits have “some serious players”.
Last season’s meetings could hardly have been closer although Caldy did the double; they won 18-16 at Lightfoot Green and 22-21 at home.
The Wirral club has won all six home games so far this term and nine out of 14 overall.
Strangely, they have a negative points differential, having scored 351 but conceded 380. They are seeking a third successive win.
Hoppers have lost their last two games – and their last four away from home, having won their first two away fixtures.
In total, they have just five victories and nine defeats, so they are grateful to have picked up 10 bonus points, the third best in the league.
They have run in five tries and then four in their last two games – and lost both of them.
Dew will be looking for a continuation of that try-scoring form while grafting on a little more patience in their own part of the pitch.
“We are trying to force it from the wrong areas,” he said after a poor tactical display in the first half of the defeat by Huddersfield. “They just turned us and waited for the mistakes and penalties to come.”
Things improved later in the game and the coaches will have been working hard on that message during training.
In that respect, Sam Russell retains the fly-half berth to which he switched last Saturday, while Lewis Allen is on the wing this week, with Phil Baines at centre.
Sam Kindred starts at scrum-half. A couple of familiar faces return to the bench – prop Rich Morton and back Alex Zavallis-Roebuck, who has been helping on the coaching side after a serious shoulder injury.
Meanwhile, clubs in North One West play their last fixtures of the year tomorrow, before resuming again on January 3.
They are already into the second half of the 26-match campaign, so Vale of Lune will be looking for their first “double” when Eccles visit Powderhouse Lane. Vale beat them 28-21 on their own pitch in September.
Eccles, next to bottom of the table, have lost all six home games but remarkably have won their last two away fixtures, at Bolton and New Brighton – their only successes in 13 matches to date.
They have managed just two bonus points, the least in their league, have scored only 175 points (also the worst) and conceded a second-worst 386.
Having lost their last two completed games, both away from home, Vale are in eighth place with six victories and six defeats.
They have lost just one out of six at Powderhouse Lane, where they are on a run of four successive victories.
They will be glad of the Christmas break as they have 17 players who are eligible for the first team on the injured list, including backs James Curran, James Birchall and Chris Weeks and forwards Andy Garnett, Daniel Baines, Ben Charnley and Rhys Randall.
Fortunately a couple of students are back from university and others are back from injury.
Charlie Lomas returns at full-back, while wingers Rob Lamberton and Ollie Dobson are available again. Matthew Humpage switches to centre, allowing the versatile Michael Barker to return to the second row.
Hooker Matt Gardner and lock Harry Fellows make timely returns from university and Malcolm Fowler resumes in the back row.
third-placed Kendal host Wilmslow, who are 10th after six wins and six defeats. But five of those victories have come away from home. Both sides won at home last season, but this season Kendal triumphed 22-9 at Wilmslow in September.
Seond-placed Kirkby Lonsdale visit Broughton Park, who are fourth.
Fylde and Richmond, fourth and fifth in National One, clash at Ansdell after wildly different results last season: Fylde won 34-26 at home but crashed 0-36 away. In fact, most league meetings between the clubs down the years have gone with home advantage.
Both sides lost last week – that made it two in a row for Richmond, who have also lost their last three away from home.
They have three victories and four defeats on their travels and have won eight out of 14 overall. Fylde are looking to add to their 10-match winning streak at home. They won their last three Ansdell fixtures last season and have started this one with seven straight victories there. They end the year with successive home games, Macclesfield being next week’s visitors.
Overall, Fylde have nine wins, a draw and four defeats.
Their starting line-up tomorrow depends on a number of late fitness checks, including winger Ben Dorrington, hooker Danny Maher, lock Paul Arnold and flanker Ben Vernon. Lock Gareth Rawlings is still serving his red-card ban.
Hoppers: M Murray; Jordan, Baines, Woof, Allen; Russell, Kindred; Mabaya, Mills, Altham, Tomlinson, A Murray, Napier, Lees, Taylor. Replacements: Holmes, Morton, Walker, Zavallis-Roebuck, Reddick.
Vale: Lomas; Lamberton, Humpage, Dorrington, Dobson; Walker, Swarbrick; Hesketh, Gardner, Pillow, Fellows, Barker, A Baines, Wallbank, Fowler.
Fylde: Spragg; Dorrington, Briers, S Rawlings, Brennand; Johnson, de la Harpe; Birchall, Maher, Lewis, Robinson, Arnold, Stewart, Vernon, Beaumont. Replacements: Griffiths, Burtonwood, Goodman, Loney, Kenyon.