Plymouth Albion Head Coach Kieran Hallett believes that a younger team invigorated by “fresh blood” could be the secret weapon that takes the side to promotion this season.
Finishing third in the National League in 2017/18, for the second year running, has given Albion a sniff at success. They ended the year with an impressive 20 wins, two draws and eight losses and Kieran believes it could be third time lucky for the Devon side.
Last season was challenging for the team – postponed games due to weather and pitch conditions, injuries for key players and new, inexperienced faces on the team.
Captain Herbie Stupple was injured for most of the season, flanker Dan Williams was laid up until February with a subscapularis tear and returned just as fly-half Dan Mugford was sidelined after rupturing a finger tendon and subsequently breaking his arm in the gym. Wing Robin Wedlake only made it to the pre-season friendlies with a knee injury in the game against Cornish Pirates, although the consolation prize is that he’s now signed for the Cornish club.
“We had some top players out and we lost that experience,” admits Kieran. “It took about half a season for the guys to get going. They just didn’t have that experience of playing together week in week out in our league. The team was building really nicely but by around Christmas time, January, we had a lot of senior players out through injury.
“Herbie, Dan, Robin – that’s your core group right there. The guys who came in had to get it together. We had to put guys in that were inexperienced, but I said at the time that we ended the season with the foundation for winning the season this year.
“There was a bit of talk around the supporters about not knowing the names on the team sheet,” confesses Kieran, “but that’s the desperation of the position we were in. We managed to give Coventry a bloody nose with six schoolkids playing. Yes, they are very young and inexperienced, but they were ready and their appearance did create a bit of a buzz.
“When these guys came in we could have just gone through the motions and finished fifth in the League and nobody would have batted an eyelid. The guys showed a bit of character.”
Albion has developed a close relationship with the Exeter Chiefs Academy under 18s, with centre Robbie Weeks scoring a hat-trick of tries in a 53-14 win against Rosslyn Park.
“The link with Exeter Academy is really important to us,” says Kieran. “We’re not in the position where our budget allows us to have a squad of 40 players. We can get young players for next to nothing and that’s invaluable to us, and to them. It’s an important time in their lives. They are fighting hard for a full-time Premiership contract and not all of them will get one.”
Kieran understands the need to foster young talent. His own playing career includes appearances for Ireland Under 21s, Ulster, Bedford Blues and Nottingham before playing for Plymouth Albion (2008-11) followed by four seasons at Cornish Pirates. He returned to Albion as a player coach in 2016.
Along with the rest of the country he’s been buoyed up by England Football’s World Cup success while fielding a young team.
“Whatever game you’re in – football, rugby, American football – you have to have one eye on the future,” he says. “The last two years have been about wanting to win the league from the start. Coventry were forerunners from the start of last season – they set their stall out and spent a lot of money to fuel that ambition. The pressure is on this year because it’s a bit more wide open, but we’ll be taking each game as it comes.”
New, fresh blood will help and the club has made a number of signings Kieran’s pleased with. Cornish fly-half Fraser Honey, 21, was someone Kieran had his eye on and he joins Albion from National League Two Bury St Edmunds.
Australian Teegan Minkley, also 21, joins from Perth-based Southern Lions RUFC. Kieran says he’s “really excited” about the prospects for this outside back. And 28-year-old hooker Davy McGregor returns for his third stint at the club.
New recruits will benefit from the experience of Dan Williams who takes on defence and forward coaching duties after deciding to take a break from playing following a shoulder injury which ruled him out for most of last season.
“After the initial shock of losing him as a player, this was a bit of a no-brainer decision,” says Kieran. “He works hard and he understands the team. I wanted someone who understood our defensive system and how it works. He’s a Plymouth guy and I look forward to working with him. It’s his first coaching job and he’ll make mistakes, but he has the respect of the dressing room.”
With Coventry promoted, Kieran says it would be “silly” not to be positive about the prospects of following them. The challenge is likely to come from teams like Rotherham, who have just come out of the Championship, last season’s runners-up, Darlington, and Ampthill & District who trailed just two points behind Albion.
“There are a lot of positives for us. And why not us? It’s wide open this year and the guys are very hungry to win the League.
The season begins on September 1 at home to Chinnor followed on September 8 with an away game to Esher.
Before that there are pre-season friendlies in August, all at The Brickfields. August 10 (7.45pm) is Bedford Blues. “They tested us last year and took us out of our comfort zone,” says Kieran.
Exeter University (3pm) is on August 18 – “a lot of very good, young players we can take a look at.”
Finally, it’s a “local” derby on 25 August (2pm) with Penzance-based Cornish Pirates – “It’s very good for us. Fans enjoyed going there last year and a lot of supporters miss that trip.”
Who knows? Maybe next season Plymouth Albion’s fans will find themselves seeing the Pirates on a more regular basis.