Cornish Pirates assistant coach Harvey Biljon says his side will respond to the most challenging of new Championship seasons ahead.
In many ways, the Penzance club have paid a heavy price for reaching the Championship final in two consecutive seasons.
They were still playing in late May when less successful teams were about to begin pre-season for the following campaign. And, thanks to London Welsh’s heroics on and off the field, the Pirates must now find a way past a relegated Newcastle Falcons side who were preparing for a season of Premiership rugby.
There is also a new Championship structure to contend with. A top-eight place in phase one of Championship is no longer enough – they will need to earn a top-four spot to have any chance of reaching the final once more.
“It has been difficult for us,” Biljon admitted to the Western Morning News. “Our players have had four weeks off and some teams have been in pre-season for eight to ten weeks.
“That comes with having a reasonably successful season. For the last two years, we have been playing at the latter end of the May.
“As keen and eager as we are to get back going, you have to realise they have been long seasons – we played 41 games last year – and it is a grind for the players.
“But they have come back looking refreshed and good to go. This season we have a much smaller squad and the players will have to play more. That will bring positives in terms of continuity but, having said that, I still think there will be competition for places.”
The Pirates’ playing squad will certainly be outmatched by Newcastle’s, on paper.
The north-east club were anticipating another season in the top flight until last month’s decision from the sport’s governing bodies to allow Championship winners London Welsh to be promoted in their place. Biljon still feels a trip to Mennaye Field will fill the Falcons with dread, though.
He said: “Newcastle have clearly been making a statement of late. They have a nine-strong coaching team that was announced. From a resources point of view, they have got everything, like Worcester a couple of seasons ago.
“There is no doubt they have a Premiership squad, they will be looking to bounce straight back up. But, as we have seen in the past, people still have to come to the Mennaye and win.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but when our players are concentrating on their performances they could potentially cause a few upsets.
“It is very early on to be talking about it, but we have to be positive. Why not be excited about the challenge? It will be good for us to be playing against Premiership-quality players.”
The Pirates’ own Premiership ambitions have been stalled by their inability to meet the minimum-standards criteria for promotion.
However, Biljon says the club’s proven ability to produce Premiership-ready players – as well as his and head coach Ian Davies’ passion for the job – means top players still head to west Cornwall.
He said: “We have seen Drew Locke, Dave Ward, Matt Hopper, Carl Rimmer, Sam Betty and Blair Cowan go up. People can see what we are producing, and they are making the step up.
“We would love to have the resources of teams like Newcastle, but Ian and I put in more time than you can imagine. It means a lot to us and we’re passionate about it and we do it because we love it and are excited about it. The players appreciate that, because it helps them achieve their potential as individuals.”
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