Doncaster Knights fly-half Simon Humberstone rates today’s Yorkshire derby at Rotherham Titans “as big as it gets.”
His team make the trip to Clifton Lane hoping to end their barren run at the ground.
The Knights will be boosted by the return of club captain and open-side Michael Mills, taking his place in the side for the first time this season after being kept out with hamstring and pectoral issues.
Tongan international back-row Jack Ram will also provide a crucial boost, making his debut for the side since being signed from New Zealand club Northland in early December.
“If you look at how the table is now then two wins over the Christmas period would be absolutely massive for us,” said Humberstone.
“We’ve got to face up to the fact that a Doncaster side hasn’t won there for a long time, but it’s Boxing Day, it’s Rotherham against Doncaster, which is as big as it gets really.”
Rotherham’s squad, meanwhile, is getting smaller, with their last match at Munster A seeing Ben Foley, Dan Tai and Tahir El Mahdi become unwanted additions to their already troubling list of injuries.
The Titans’ injury roll call has also forced them to play scrum-half Matt Walsh on the wing as well as having to call in Hull Ionians winger Sam Wilson on loan as part of nine changes made to the side.
Despite this, head coach Justin Burnell is feeling confident ahead of what is a crucial game for both sides.
“We are looking forward to the game,” he said. “To be playing your closest rivals at home on Boxing Day doesn’t get much better than that. We are expecting a big crowd and the intensity of the game will be huge from both teams.”
Rotherham can also take encouragement from the Knights’ recent losing record at Clifton Lane, which spans back to April 2011, already coming back to haunt them this season during a 34-17 loss in the first round of the British & Irish Cup.
Despite this, neither side have had much to cheer about on the pitch recently, both without a win in all competitions since November.
However, both will agree that form often counts for nothing in matches like this, with a win carrying great significance for the sides as they look to cement themselves in a keenly-contested Championship race for the play-offs.
Doncaster, in particular, only lie one point behind fourth-placed Nottingham and a victory against their fierce rivals would send out a huge statement that they are back on track to again make the play-offs at the end of the season.
This game also gives Rotherham the opportunity to lay down a marker with Burnell’s men – five places behind their opponents – being only six points away from the play-off zone.
With rivals Yorkshire Carnegie travelling to Nottingham today, the match at Clifton Lane is seen as an important pointer for the rest of the campaign.
Carnegie, meanwhile, are firmly rooted in second place, with their only loss of the season coming against unbeaten league leaders London Irish.
Former London Welsh duo Chris Elder and Ben West are set to feature in the squad having been signed early last week, with back-row Edler making an immediate start at Nottingham, while second-row West takes his place on the bench.
Matt Smith and Richard Mayhew will also return from injury to take up their respective second and back-row positions for Carnegie, while Ryan Burrows will reclaim the captain’s armband after being rested for the British & Irish Cup games against Newport Gwent Dragons Select.
Head coach Bryan Redpath has expressed his delight in securing his new signings, praising the “strength” and “experience” they can bring to his squad.
“We’ve had our fair share of bumps and bruises this season,” he said, “and this just strengthens the squad at the right time.
“Both understand the Championship as well. They know what’s required and they’re both driven to do well.”
The pair will come up against their former side London Welsh, despite the club entering liquidation, with a new company being granted temporary licence by the Rugby Football Union in order to fulfil their next two fixtures.
Redpath realises the importance of his team’s next two games with Nottingham and Welsh, despite sitting relatively comfortably in second spot.
“These two games are huge for us just to make sure we maintain the continuity and the momentum we have.,” he added.