NOT so long ago, Otley were right on the tails of National Two North’s frontrunners; now they face a “huge” derby as they look to halt an alarming slump.
Mark Luffman’s side host Sandal this afternoon having lost three successive games to fall from third to seventh, prompting some “soul-searching” this week to get to the bottom of their unexpected reversal in fortunes.
For forwards coach Adam Blades, the experienced prop who will look to lead from the front today, he is adamant the West Yorkshire club can recover just as quickly as they fell.
“We were sitting pretty three weeks ago in third so it has been massively disappointing for us a team and as a club to come unstuck against some of the bottom sides in the league,” he admitted, having lost 13-12 at home to Tynedale and then on the road at Stourbridge and Luctonians.
“We have got two long trips out of the way now and they have been tough games with the weather conditions and things like that but we know we could have picked up more from them all.
“Tynedale only got into our half once and then scored the match-winning try while Luctonians just played the conditions better than we did.
“There has been some soul-searching this week. We know we now have to perform against Sandal.
“We’ve had a team meeting and looked back at videos of those losses and picked out things we need to work on.
“There was a bit of a realisation of where we need to be and this game now is huge for us.”
Otley remain confident they can recapture their previous form – they had won six of their previous seven games before this – but are aware Sandal pose their own threat.
Since winning promotion from National Three North via a tense play-off against Midlands side Hinckley in April, they have adapted to the higher level superbly.
The Wakefield side are up to fourth having delivered nine wins from 14 fixtures so far.
Blades admitted: “With all due respect to them, they have surprised a few teams.
“It’s always tough coming up into this division and those that do are expected to struggle.
“It’s great, though, for Yorkshire rugby that Sandal are doing so well.
“We don’t want to see Huddersfield at the bottom like they are but it’s good for the county to have so many sides in here (Harrogate are eighth) and also as it’s less travelling for us lot!
“We will be mindful of Sandal on Saturday and what they are capable of but we have to focus on ourselves and ensuring we perform like we know we can.”
Blades says the return of veteran former Otley coach Peter Clegg this season as director of rugby has been a real plus for the Cross Green outfit.
“Cleggy has instilled a bit of discipline and put a good squad together,” he said.
“He’s left the coaching side to Luffers, myself and Fred Burdon and, in the background, is keeping the club running well.
“He’s really helping to turn it around in terms of membership and helping put the club back to where it belongs.”
Meanwhile, Harrogate will have the rare pleasure of playing at a Premiership ground today.
With water engulfing relegation-threatened Tynedale’s ground, Harrogate’s National Two North fixture has been switched to Kingston Park, home of Newcastle Falcons, which has a 3G pitch.
The artificial surface is a welcome relief for Mike Aspinall’s side who saw last Saturday’s home game with South Leicester postponed due to rain although he admitted it posed new issues.
“The challenge on the 3G is that, while the surface stays quite firm, handling can still be quite challenging,” said Harrogate’s director of rugby.
“But I’m sure the guys will be over the moon to be playing on a surface like that at this time of the year.
“From watching Tynedale, they are not ideally placed in the league but they have a great set of running backs themselves.”
Aspinall is certain brothers Guy and Jonny Coser will return following injury, with changes expected to be minimal from the sobering defeat at struggling Broadstreet two weeks ago.
The postponed South Leicester fixture has been rescheduled for April 16.
Elsewhere, injury-ravaged Wharfedale seek to rebuild their National One campaign when they host Fylde at The Avenue.
The Greens lost all their fixtures in November but pushed Plymouth Albion close and then ended a seven-match losing run by winning 16-15 at Hull Ionians a week ago.
Chairman of rugby Michael Harrison said: “Considering the injuries – we’d 20 plus – the players have played with fantastic resolution in those last two games.
“This Saturday is special – our traditional Christmas home match against Fylde is a big one for us and a chance to build momentum.”