RUGBY PREVIEW: Hartlepool Rovers v Medicals

ATTACKING GEM: Liam Austwicke
ATTACKING GEM: Liam Austwicke
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HARTLEPOOL Rovers open 2015 with a month which has a distinct Northumberland flavour.

And their four matches in January could go a long way to deciding how good a season they have.

Rovers kick off the year with a vital home date against Medicals (kick-off 2.15pm) before matches against championship favourites Morpeth (a), Novocastrians (h) and Ryton (a).

Tomorrow’s fourth against fifth battle at the Friarage could easily set the tone for the month – that is certainly the hope of coaches Graham Puckrin and Carl Robinson.

Rovers hold a five-point gap over Medicals – a lead they could double with a bonus-point victory.

A trip to Morpeth the following Saturday is a tall order but, on paper at least, Rovers should then beat both Novos and Ryton.

If Rovers can come through January with somewhere in the region of 15 points, they should stay in the mix at the top.

But they need to get off to a flier tomorrow and Puckrin and Robinson know it will not be easy.

“There have been a few games this season that we’ve felt a lot of frustration,” Robinson told SportMail.

“We’ve lost a few matches we really should have won.

“But if there was one game I can say we deserved absolutely nothing from it, it was Medicals away.

“I think we were three tries down in 25 minutes, fought back a bit and then we let them get clear again.

“Medicals absolutely blew us away.

“They wanted it more and were the better side, by far.”

It is up to Rovers to turn around things from that day which ended in a 38-17 mauling at Cartington Terrace.

Medicals have become something of a bogey side –they scored over 30 points at the Friarage 12 months ago.

But Robinson says Rovers must concentrate on the future and look to stay in contention at the top of the league.

“Before Gosforth we had some momentum and we’ve got to get that back,” he said.

“We gave West a good game on Boxing Day and me and Puck hope that has given them some belief.

“I’ve said many times how good our players are and can be but they have to believe it themselves.

“We’re well up in the league and we want to push on.”

Rovers have made two changes to the side which was beaten 19-10 at Brinkburn on Boxing Day.

Attacking gem Liam Austwicke, who missed the derby with a chest infection, is fit to resume and he replaces young prospect Chris Harrison at full-back.

Experienced winger David Grand, who was almost clear for an early interception try on Boxing Day, suffered a back injury and misses topmorrow’s game. He is replaced by Michael Railton, who was part of the Rovers side who beat West Stags in the Bill Bowden Memorial Game on Saturday.

Up front, Michael Tucker, a half-time sub on Boxing Day, starts at prop in place of Ben Little.

Rovers bring in Connor White onto the subs bench after the utility player has impressed Puckrin and Robinson.

“He’s been at the club since he was a kid,” Robinson explained. “I’ve had a chat with him a while back about his attitude but the last six months he’s been a different lad.

“His attitude is spot on – he’ll play anywhere and turn his hand to anything.

“Last month, I rang him 20 minutes before meet time after we’d had a late cry-off and asked him if he would go on the bench for us.

“He said he could and he did and he took his chance.

“Connor has earned his spot in the squad and hopefully he’ll take full advantage of it.”

White is joined on the bench by Boxing Day scorer Michael Foster and Ian Flounders, another prospect who is showing good form.

Rovers: L Austwicke, M Railton, J Gunn, I Coulson (capt), A Smith, D Fawcett, S Barnfield, A Flounders, K Maguire, M Tucker, D Langley, D Baxter, T Church, L Maddison, M Wilson. Subs: I Flounders, M Foster, C White