RUGBY PREVIEW: West Hartlepool v Hartlepool Rovers

ROVERS RETURN: Ian Coulson
ROVERS RETURN: Ian Coulson

IAIN Dixon is confident his West side will continue their grip on Hartlepool’s Boxing Day rugby derby – but he will not take Rovers lightly.

West will start the 219th town battle as favourites at Brinkburn (kick-off 2pm).

As the winners of the last six meetings between the rivals, they will be expected to maintain their stranglehold.

But head coach Dixon is not taking victory for granted.

“Rovers are doing well in the league and they will be tough to beat,” Dixon told SportMail.

“I’m expecting it to be a good and entertaining game for the spectators.

“I respect the Boxing Day fixture and respect the opposition.

“We have picked our full-strength side and I think that shows the respect we have for Rovers.

“We take pride in our home performances and results and if we perform as we can I expect us to win at Brinkburn whether it’s in the league, cup or Boxing Day.

“But it’s up to the lads to go out and play.

“It’s an old cliche, but the formbook and leagues go out the window for matches like this.

“It often boils down to who wants it the most will get the win.”

West make just the one change to the side which ground out a hard-fought 9-3 victory over Dinnington which moved them up into the top half of North One East.

Prop Ian Pinchen, one of a trio of former Rovers in the West pack, is unavailable but Ross Wood, who has been in excellent form in his recent displays, will team up with Andrew Rollins and Adam Coates in the front row.

Jay Corbett, a try scorer in West’s win at the Friarage 12 months ago, starts in the second row with Joe Rafferty moving down to the bench.

Liam Bailey will continue in the back row after great performance against Dinnington in his new role.

West welcome back two of the club’s long-term injury absentees with Alex Barker and Greg Edwards taking their places on the bench.

Dixon has also taken the opportunity to include two of the club’s young prospects in the 22-man squad, Callum Johnson and Dan Quinn.

“With having seven on the bench, it’s a chance to get some of our colts some first-team experience.”

Rovers joint coaches Graham Puckrin and Carl Robinson have stressed their desire that the players “enjoy the occasion”.

Robinson told SportMail: “I’m loathe to refer to this game as a friendly.

“But that’s effectively what it is.

“How often now do you get the chance to go out and play with no pressure on you.

“Friendlies are a rarity, all games now seem to have league points riding on them, so Friday is a chance to go and play with a smile on our faces and enjoy the occasion.

“West are in a higher league and have a good young side – I think it will be a good game for us.

“I want to see us try to move the ball and play in the way we do in the league.

“Obviously it’s a game we don’t want to lose but, overall, I want to see the lads perform and enjoy it.”

Rovers are hoping it will be a case of third-time-lucky after two poor displays in Northumberland – a win at Blyth and a defeat at Gosforth.

“We had some cracking wins and then we go and let ourselves down,” said Robinson. “We didn’t play well at Blyth and were then absolutely awful at Gosforth.”

They have been strengthened by the return of skipper Ian Coulson, plus attacking full-back Liam Austwicke.

Up front, Anthony Hanley comes in at lock with Matty Wilson switching to number eight, Stewart Grazier stepping down to the bench where he may relish a supersub role at a club he represented two seasons ago.

West: S Waites, K Jamieson, S Butcher, P Youll, L Mallinson, Z Southern, R Painter, R Wood, A Rollins, A Coates, J Corbett, C Atkins, L Bailey, D Boatman (capt), S Miller. Subs: A Barker, J Angus, J Rafferty, M Hogan, J Baggs, G Jackson, G Edwards, C Johnson, D Quinn.

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