11:45AM, Thursday 02 September 2021
Maidenhead RFC head coach David Mobbs-Smith says he's excited by the prospect of taking on North Walsham in the club's first ever London & South East Premier Division clash on Saturday, but doesn't want to hazard a guess just yet as to how they'll get on this season.
It's been a long road back to competitive rugby for Maids, but the club will hope they've come through the past 18 months better than most having worked extremely hard to minimise the impact of the global pandemic and ensure they were one of the first outside of the professional game to be back on the training field.
They've looked strong in pre-season so far, having run National League 2 side Henley Hawks close in last Thursday's 35-33 defeat at Braywick Park, while Guildford were brushed aside 42-17 the previous Saturday.
Whether preseason form is a good barometer of how they'll perform in a new league, off the back of 18 months of uncertainty and having played through various phases of the RFU's return to rugby roadmap, is unknown.
But what is for certain is they go into Saturday's clash against North Walsham full of confidence and without fear, and with the backing of several hundred loyal supporters.
“We’ve had a lot of time to train and now the season is starting, and we can’t wait,” said Mobbs-Smith.
“North Walsham is a big task for us to take on, and they’ll likely travel well this weekend because they're bringing two teams so it’s going to be an excellent weekend of rugby and we’re looking forward to the challenge.
“Not knowing the league and what teams have done in the past 18 months, you can only hazard a guess as to how everyone will do, but you’re not making an informed decision.
“There’s been so much change at clubs. Some players will have retired, and others will have been brought in so it’s pretty difficult to make a call and say ‘we expect so-and-so to be strong’.
“It will maybe take all the matches through September to get a feel for the league as we’ll have then seen how teams are playing at home and how they travel away.”
He added: “There’s a lot more unpredictability and uncertainty this season, made bigger by the pandemic.
“I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess on what we could achieve and everybody in the league is in that same boat. You know what it’s like at the start of the season, everybody is going to get promoted and no one’s going to be relegated and that’s not the case at the end of the season.”
The team which takes to the field will be somewhat different to the one which last played a competitive fixture, the 43-14 victory over Barnstaple back in March 2020. And while the coaching team may have made slight tactical adjustments over the past 18 months, Mobbs-Smith expects their style of play to be fairly recognisable to supporters.
North Walsham will be travelling from 'the other side of Norwich' for Saturday's game, but they'll be bringing a large and experienced squad, with the second teams also set to face off against each other at Braywick Park from 2.30pm.
The head coach admits Maids' knowledge of the league is limited, having never played in it before, however, he has coached against many of the sides they'll come up against, while several players have also come from or played in the London & South East Division at some point in their careers.
“I would expect North Walsham to come here with a strong side,” he added.
“Whether they would take the same team to play Hove in Brighton I don't know, so that could make a difference.
“Some of our players have played in this league before and I've coached against quite a few of these teams so we have some information on them, but we're not as well rehearsed on what they do and how they play as we would if we were playing them year in and year out.
“It's a challenge, but it's also one we're looking forward to. There will be different teams, different styles of rugby and it's going to be great, the players can't wait.
“I feel that people will recognise our style of play, and what we're trying to do. Obviously, over a long period of time you adjust things and change things tactically, but in general we'll be the same type of team and historically, Maidenhead have always played in a certain way anyway and I don't think we'll be too far from what people are expecting.”
The head coach hopes Maidenhead's fans can replicate the atmosphere they created in Thursday's enthralling game with Henley Hawks and hopes they'll enjoy returning to the ground and embrace that 'lovely rugby club atmosphere'. On the field he also hopes Maids will benefit from not having to travel several hours to most of their away games this season and believes that could also have a positive effect on player availability.
“The stand was full for the Henley match, and it was a brilliant atmosphere,” added Mobbs-Smith.
“If we can replicate it at our home games that will be tremendous.
“I think there’s a hunger from the fans to get down and watch rugby and have that lovely rugby club atmosphere back again.
“There’s a need for it in the community but also for individuals to get back down to the club and enjoy rugby with their mates. It's going to be brilliant.
“Henley are a top four National 2 side, so we were thrilled with how we performed and the things we tried to execute under great pressure. It was a great run out for us against a very good side. The evidence is that we've done well in pre-season but the uncontrollable is you don't know how well your opponents have done and how much progress they've made.”
He added: “The travel aspect is a huge bonus for us, and it will be interesting to see how that factors into our away squads. We have quite a lot of teachers who are busy on Saturday mornings and they weren't able to make those long trips to the South West. Now, they might be able to play if our match is in the London area.
“There is only one journey that's equivalent to seven of the journeys we had in the South West Premier and asking people to catch a coach at 11am/12pm is completely different to asking them to catch one at 7.30am.
“North Walsham will be strong this weekend, because everyone will want to play, but it will be interesting to see what their away form is like at Christmas.”
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