Preston Grasshoppers, Vale of Lune and Fylde all launch the new year by heading south for what look like tricky fixtures.
Vale, of course, have the shortest trip, travelling to Birkenhead Park for a game against the leaders of North One West. Fylde make another of their treks to London to play Rosslyn Park, one place above them in National League One. And Hoppers visit Broadstreet, who have won five of their last six matches in National League Two North.
Broadstreet came to Lightfoot Green in September after winning promotion and ended up on the wrong end of a 32-13 scoreline. But they have now won seven out of 15 to lie 10th, one place and three points above Hoppers. With Preston winning only five and losing 11 to date, they are keeping in touch with the Midlands club because they have picked up 11 bonus points to Broadstreet’s six.
However, Garth Dew’s men are on a run of five successive defeats and have also lost their last five away games, after winning the first two.
The coach said of the Christmas break: “Everyone needs a rest after non-stop training for four or five months. I want them to come back refreshed to try to turn the season around. We think we’ve found a good balance to go into the new year, so Broadstreet and the following week against Stockport will be defining games.”
Broadstreet have played only six home games so far, winning three of them. They have strong links with Coventry, which gives them access to a number of players from the National One club.
Hoppers anticipate making just one change to the starting line-up compared with the agonising defeat by Otley, Mark Murray returning at full-back for the unavailable Scott Jordan.
Vale of Lune hope to turn out a much more experienced team at Birkenhead Park than the one which suffered a surprise pre-Christmas defeat at home to Eccles.
On paper, they will certainly need to, for Park have won all six home games – and 11 out of 14 in total – to top the table, seven places and 18 points ahead of the Lancastrians.
Like Hoppers, Vale are on a run of five successive away defeats, after winning their first (at Eccles). They have also lost their last three, home and away, and in total have six victories and seven defeats.
Park won 27-22 at Powderhouse Lane in September and also won both last season’s fixtures, 32-14 at home and 28-7 away. They have 10 bonus points to Vale’s 12.
With Ross Pillow, Rob Lamberton and Charlie Lomas all away, but other regulars available again, Vale make seven changes.
Chris Weeks returns at full-back, James Birchall is on the wing and Neil Walker switches to centre to accommodate the return of Adam Macluskie at fly-half.
Dan Baines and Paul McLaren-Dorrington come into the front row and Ben Charnley is back at lock.
Also in North One West, third-placed Kendal visit Bolton, who are 11th after losing 10 out of 14 (and three out of six at home). The Cumbrians have won 10 out of 13 but only three out of six away from Mint Bridge. Second-placed Kirkby Lonsdale are at home to Widnes, who are fourth.
Although Rosslyn Park are third to Fylde’s fourth in National One, they lost their last two games before the holiday break, including their only home defeat out of seven so far, against Ealing. In total they have 13 victories and three defeats compared to Fylde’s 11 wins, one draw and four defeats.
Three points separates the sides, as Park have 12 bonus points to the visitors’ 15. Fylde won their last two games – both at Ansdell – but have lost their last three on the road in a tally of two away wins, one draw and four defeats.
They beat Park 22-17 at home in September and 26-10 last season, but lost 7-16 on their last visit to Roehampton.
Adam Lewis is unavailable for Fylde, so Simon Griffiths moves up to prop and hooker Alex Loney makes his first start for more than two years. The return of Ben Vernon at flanker allows Joe Robinson to switch to lock.
Hoppers: M Murray; Baines, Russell, Woof, Allen; Zavallis-Roebuck, Kindred; Mabaya, Mills, Morton, Tomlinson, A Murray, Napier, Lees, Taylor. Replacements: Holmes, Madden, Walker, Reddick, Moulding.
Vale: Weeks; Dobson, Dorrington, Walker, Birchall; Macluskie, Swarbrick; Hesketh, D Baines, McLaren-Dorrington, Charnley, Fellows, Barker, A Baines, Wallbank.
Fylde: Spragg; Dorrington, Briers, S Rawlings, Brennand; Johnson, de la Harpe; Birchall, Loney, Griffiths, Robinson, G Rawlings, Vernon, Stewart, Beaumont. Replacements: Wild, Burtonwood, Arnold, Goodman, Bedlow.