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Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Friday, 5 September 2008 10:23 UK

Cambridge RUFC season preview

Steve Jackson
By Steve Jackson
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

Darren Fox
Flanker Darren Fox is the star new addition to the Cambridge squad

This Saturday sees the start of Cambridge Rugby Club's most important season ever.

Over the last five seasons, the club's aspirations and achievements have increased every success, every win, every player capture since finishing in second place in London Division Two in 2003-04.

A dedicated band, led by president Rod Bishop and chairman Jerry Otter, have sailed the club through some notoriously choppy waters to a third consecutive season in National League

Two and a consolidated place amongst the country's top 40 clubs.

What awaits at the end of it all is still shrouded in mystery as a decision has seemingly yet to be taken on the league's structure for next season.

The club's stated aim on arrival into National Two was 'stay up, move up, go up' but the latter may be obstructed by a new scenario at Guinness Premiership/National One level.

But the new campaign still promises more than any other since the club was founded 1923.

Finishing 6th in the division last season was no disgrace at all, but poor away form left player-coach James Shanahan's men with a mountain to climb despite only losing three games at home all season.

The faithful had to wait until 5 January to witness a home reverse, 32-8 defeat to Stourbridge, but another came along a week later to Rotherham Titans (15-16) in the EDF National Trophy.

Finally, champions-elect Otley toppled the men in 'blood and sand' on 12 April (22-47).

It all seemed such a long way away as we trekked to pre-season favourites Henley Hawks on 1 September last year.

At one point Hawks' pitch resembled Rourke's Drift, with more blood injuries than any game I've ever seen, prone players being attended to by frantic physios - it really was a statement of intent.


As it happened, the pack was not quite mobile enough or monstrous enough to feed one of the fastest sets of backs in the league with the 'killer ball' on their travels.

At home, 'Champagne running rugby' abounded and Chris Lombaard again proved to be the division's top try scorer, with Shanahan, Paul 'PK' Kendall and scrum-half Stef Liebenberg hot on his heels.

Recruitment this close season has aimed to show lessons have been learned and by my reckoning 17 players have arrived in time for Saturday.

The new improved National League squad is huge, in more ways than one, 6ft 8ins Robbie Hurrell (signed from Henley Hawks) tops the height charts but Karl Rudzki (Northampton Saints) is only marginally shorter.

Flanker Darren Fox, a veteran of Northampton Saints Premiership and European campaigns, despite relatively tender years, has arrived to add steel and drive.

Number eight Dave Archer (Hawks) and back row Danny Legge (Southend) make up the new look pack, along with prop Mike Guess (Southend) and hooker Matt Miles.

Though latterly of Ulster, Welsh U21 Miles played much of his youth rugby at Cambridge.

In the backs, fly-half Ben Patston has moved down the A428 from Bedford Blues and is joined by fellow Blue James Hinkins as well as former Cardiff Blue Craig Evans.

Scrum-half Danny Hunter has come in from El Salvador in Spain, another with European competition experience.

Cambridge's summer transfers:
Ins: Ben Patston (Bedford Blues), Ben Smith (Currie RFC), Craig Evans (Cardiff Blues), Dan Hunter (El Salvador), Dan Legge (Southend), Daniel David, (Bath Academy), Darren Fox (Northampton Saints), Dave Archer (Henley Hawks), Handre Schmidt (Hertford), James Hinkins (Bedford Blues), John Brake (Northampton Saints - loan), Jon Vickers (Northampton Saints - loan), Karl Rudzki (Northampton Saints), Matt Miles (Ulster), Mike Guess (Southend), Phil Ellis (Hertford), Rob Hurrell (Henley Hawks), Simon Lincoln (Luton)
Outs: Chris Blom (released), Darrell Burchnal (released), Gareth Cull (Carmarthen Quins), George Gaywood (Ampthill), Glenn Remnant (Launceston), Jack Green (Rugby Lions), James Ball (Shelford), John Harlock (Pertemps Bees), Phil Reed (Rugby Lions)

Competition, for places, points and position, is very much on the management teams' agenda and new forwards coach Bob Crooks will aim to ensure this happens.

Nearly 50 players sounds a lot until you factor in two 15s plus five subs each per week (for the first team and Wanderers) and inevitable injuries.

Stourbridge on Saturday will be difficult as statisticians will point out that Cambridge have failed to overcome them on all four occasions they have met, coaching staff and players will say it is history and the game is there for the winning.

Pre-season has been hard, starting with a nominal but useful 2410 home win against Ealing Trailfinders (the Cambridge of National Three South, in terms of ambition).

A narrow Wanderers defeat (20-19) at Rugby Lions and reserves loss at Bedford Blues (41-18) as well as at home to Premiership side Worcester Warriors (39-18) last weekend do not tell the real story.

Having spoken to the player-coach, I know from his reviewing of the match videos that there is an awful lot for him to be pleased with and optimistic about.

Bedding in so many players is difficult, ask any coach at any level, but adding bulk, power and grit to the large nucleus retained from 2007-2008 should pay dividends.

Add developing talents such as the West Suffolk College quartet of centre Toby Berridge, England Colleges prop Ben Cooper, US Eagles U20s skipper Matt Edison and full-back Chris Snelling and there is a look to the future as well.

So what is that future? Only time will tell but I'll leave the last word to Rod Bishop: "Everyone is aware that structural changes are afoot with the RFU that are likely to see a polarisation of funding towards a smaller group of elite clubs.

"This may be as few as 24 teams, in two very tough and possibly full-time leagues.

"Cambridge's geographical location and demographic profile, allied to a vibrant business community, make us very well placed to be one of those elite clubs, providing the management stays focused and works hard with the players to deliver this."

If you build it, they will come.

Steve Jackson will report on Cambridge RUFC throughout the season on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

see also
Cambridge sign former Saint Fox
31 Jul 08 |  Rugby Union
Hunter joins Cambridge revolution
18 Jul 08 |  Rugby Union
Lock Hurrell joins Cambridge
03 Jul 08 |  Rugby Union

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