Doncaster Knights will cross swords with Coventry for the first time in nine years at Castle Park on Saturday (2.30pm) in the opening round of fixtures in the inaugural Championship Cup.
One of the giants of English rugby in the 1960s and 70s during which time they regularly supplied star names such as Fran Cotton and David Duckham to the England team, Coventry had languished in National One since being relegated in 2009-10 prior to securing a return to the Championship with five games to spare last season.
They have invested heavily in players following promotion and signed several players from Doncaster including first-team regulars centre Andy Bulumakau and back-rower Jack Ram.
Their investment has paid off and they will go into Saturday’s game, the first of six successive Championship Cup group games, holding down seventh spot - two places above Knights.
“They have made a decent start, as you would expect with the players they’ve brought in and we’ll be treating them with respect,” said Doncaster’s director of rugby Clive Griffiths, who returned to work earlier this week following heart surgery
“But all of their wins have been at home – and they played as well against London Irish in defeat as we did – but they have yet to win away and we’ve got to make sure they don’t change that record at the weekend.”
Knights returned to winning ways, following five successive Championship defeats, last time out at London Scottish.
“The win has obviously raised the players’ spirits and they’ve also had a week off to get over any knocks they were carrying and to recharge their batteries,” said the Welshman who is still taking things slowly on his return to Castle Park.
“But we haven’t won at home for a few weeks – which has been highlighted in this week’s build-up - and it’s something we need to put right going forward.”
Like the rest of the coaching staff, Griffiths is a little disappointed that due to international call-ups, which robs them of the likes of fly-half Kurt Morath, second-rower Nick Civetta and No 8 Josh Tyrell, Knights will have to change a winning side.
But he is hopeful that the club’s squad will be boosted by several players returning from injury and says that summer signing Willie Ryan, whose preferred position is No 8, will prove an able deputy for the Samoan international when switching from flanker.
With the top two in each of the three groups of four progressing to the knock-out stages to be played in the second half of the season, Griffiths is confident that Knights can qualify from their group.
“If you win your home games and pick up a win on the road then the likelihood is that will be good enough to qualify for the latter stages,” he said.
“I suspect it will be a bit like the old B&I Cup, which the Championship Cup has replaced, in that clubs will see how the first few rounds go and if they go well and they reach the knock-out stages then you are ‘in it to win it’ as we will be.
“We had a decent record in the B&I Cup, reaching the final, and it would be nice to do well in the Championship Cup as well. We don’t fear anybody although we respect all the other sides.
“We are in a tough group with Nottingham currently going really well, Coventry having made a solid start and Yorkshire Carnegie are both getting injured players back and bringing in some quality signings from overseas.
“It’s important that we get off to a good start and the fact that we start with a home game should help in that respect. We go to Nottingham the following week and although we lost there in the league earlier in the season it was a game that we should have won on the night.
The Championship Cup games will see new tackle rules, designed to reduce head injuries, trialled.
“We thought that they were going to be introduced to the Championship this season so we worked on them in the summer,” said Griffiths. “We’ve picked up where we left off this week.”
Even the RFU have admitted that games could be ‘messy’ and Griffiths is calling for officials to make allowances, particularly in the opening games.
Although as committed as everyone in the game to try and reduce the sort of head injury which has sidelined such as young second-rower Sam Jones since the first month of the season, Griffiths remains to be convinced of the new rules.
“I don’t think what the RFU are looking to do will necessarily resolve the problem,” he argued. “For me the main cause of head injuries is players getting heads on knees and hips when going lower trying to make a tackle.
“You will still get players hitting the heads of other players, including their own team-mates, in other areas of the game.”