FOR a trio of under-pressure Yorkshire clubs, today marks the start of a pivotal point in their season as the battle to avoid relegation intensifies.
Wharfedale, Harrogate and, in particular, Sheffield Tigers are all under threat near the bottom of National League Two North and, with three sides being demoted, each understands the urgency to start picking up victories during the second half of their campaigns.
They all resume action this afternoon after a fortnight’s break over Christmas and, as 2017 begins in earnest, there lies a fascinating tussle ahead.
Of the Broad Acres contingent, Sheffield look most at risk.
Having earned promotion from National North Three last season, they initially seemed to have coped well with the transition to the higher echelon, winning the first four of their opening eight league games.
However, Thiu Barnard’s side have endured a torrid run thereafter, losing all of their following eight fixtures ahead of today’s difficult visit by Stourbridge.
Crucially, though, their next two home games are against Harrogate and Wharfedale which will certainly have huge significance.
Tigers sit 15th with only Preston Grasshoppers below; the South Yorkshire side are three points ahead of them, one behind 14th-placed Harrogate and four adrift of Wharfedale, who presently occupy the relative safety of 13th.
Scunthorpe and Luctonians are also far from safe. Interestingly, after heading to South Leicester this afternoon, Harrogate host Luctonians the following week before that trip to Sheffield.
David Doherty, the former Wasps and Sale Sharks winger who became Harrogate’s director of rugby after being released from Yorkshire Carnegie last May, is relishing the challenges ahead.
At just 29, he is young for his first such appointment – it was no surprise he has come out of retirement to aid his side on the field, too – but remains confident his squad have the talent to survive.
Doherty, who also works as the club’s commercial director, admitted: “I think this is an important stage of the season for us.
“We play a few teams around us in the table but I actually think we turned a corner six or seven weeks ago.
“We got some form going at home (winning three of their last four at Rudding Park) and I’m happy with the way we’re going.
“It’s taken the pressure off us a little now we’ve moved away from bottom but every time we’ve picked up a win, Wharfedale seem to have done as well.
“We’ve been blooding a lot of young players this season especially having lost a lot of experience in the backs.
“But, and I know personally from my own career, you have to get that experience under your belt whether it’s good or bad.
“The big thing for the club is to make sure it’s functional as a whole right down to the minis and juniors.
“We have got 1,200 members, 530 juniors and we’re certainly never going to change our pay structure to stay in this league but we need a first-team that will give our kids something to aspire to.”
They are bolstered today by new signing Sam Fox, the 19-year-old fly-half who was part of Premiership club Exeter’s academy side before heading over to New Zealand where he represented Wellington Under-19s.
Loose-head prop Charlie Purkiss-McEndoo has also been in New Zealand but could feature at South Leicester.
Wharfedale know they have their own work cut out to avoid a second successive relegation.
The Greens’ 20-year association with National One ended with demotion last April and they did, at first, find life in the lower division difficult.
They lost nine of their opening 11 fixtures but have since won three of their last five, including a morale-boosting 27-17 success over derby rivals Otley the week before Christmas.
They head to 10th-placed Hinckley today and president John Spencer – the former England captain visiting New Zealand in his role as British Lions tour manager for the 2017 All Blacks trip – hopes the renaissance will gather pace.
“We were obviously disappointed to be relegated but we’re now just beginning to get some players back from long-term injuries and I think that will make a considerable difference to us in the new year and onwards,” he said.
“Gradually we’re climbing the table. These fixtures are vital over the next month as we try to make our way back up the league.
“I don’t think anyone is anticipating us being promoted; quite often when a side is relegated, you just have to consolidate, make sure you have some stability and then work upwards.
“It’s purely hard work that drives you through it. We’ve a lot of very young players but an advantage for us is we have a lot of home-grown talent, too.”