CLECKHEATON RUFC only secured survival in the final game of last season, but the club are firmly looking forward as they aim to put what was almost a disastrous year behind them.
In late March, with three matches to go, relegation from North One East looked a serious possibility. They had lost eight of their last nine games, in a run going back to before Christmas, and the only win in that time was a defeat of Pocklington a week after the club had to withdraw from the Yorkshire Cup.
Injuries had bitten in the cold of winter, the squad was stripped down to the bare bones, and that sorry run, culminating in a defeat to bottom side Consett, put them dangerously close to the drop.
But with a big heave they managed to pull themselves clear, powering past local rivals Morley before spectacularly sweeping Malton and Norton away on the final day to get over the line.
It was not the way that Thiu Barnard wanted his second season as Cleck coach to go, but he is clear that the troubles of last year have been quickly boxed away.
He said: “It was tough. We went through patches when we had a lot of injuries which didn’t help us a lot. We didn’t have a lot of depth which made it really tough for us when we had those injuries.
“We did well to stay up in the end. We had to dig deep and that’s what we did. But we’ve put that behind us now, we don’t want to look back on last season.”
The lessons of that struggle have been learnt though. Lee Queeley has returned to the fold as strength and conditioning coach and will look to put the players in shape to survive the rigours of a full season, while skipper Matt Piper has stepped up to the role of backs coach.
And if the treatment room becomes as well-occupied as it did last term, a renewed focus on their second team should mean they are not caught short on numbers.
“It’s the best pre-season I’ve had since I started coaching,” said Barnard, who has appeared in warm-up games himself but hopes not to be required to put his boots back on over the course of the campaign.
“The environment is fantastic and I think this is the fittest I’ve seen this Cleck side, with the help of Lee Queeley who has come in to look at the conditioning side.
“The squad has massively improved as we’re looking after the second team a lot more this year. Last year’s first-team manager is now the second-team manager.
“We’ve been averaging between 30 and 40 players training every session, and last year we struggled to get over 20. So we’ve just put more emphasis on looking after our second-team players rather than just the first-team squad, and that’s helped massively.
“Selection is going to be so tough because we’ve got so many to pick from, and that’s what we want. We want the headaches, we want the competition.”
Adding to that competition is a quintet of new additions over the summer. Scrum-half Jack Crabtree and prop Chris Piper have signed from Heath, scrum-half Tom Breakwell has moved from Harrogate Pythons, and full-back Jack Marshall comes to Moorend from West Leeds alongside young front-rower Archie Rika-Rayne.
All have had outings in Cleckheaton’s two pre-season fixtures: comfortable away wins at both Rochdale and Sandal in the past two weeks.
“Rochdale was good. We never got out of second gear, I don’t think we were forced to,” said Barnard.
“Obviously there were going to be mistakes, this is pre-season and that’s what it’s there for. But we played pretty well and scored some good tries.
“Then at the weekend against Sandal, again we weren’t forced to get out of our comfort zone really. The backs scored all seven of our tries so that can only mean our forwards did their job. I’m really happy with where we are.”
Exactly where they are will be tested on the opening day, when Cleck could hardly have a tougher assignment. Scarborough reached 100 points last season and finished in second place in the table, although they were pushed close in both meetings with the Moorenders.
“It’ll be a step up this weekend against Scarborough,” Barnard said. “They were a decent side last year.”
But he added: “I’m not worried about them. If we turn up like I hope we will, I can’t see us not winning the game. They will have to be very good. It’s a tough start for us but I don’t mind it.”
He says they are not setting any particular aims for the season, instead taking it “week-by-week, game-by-game” as you “never know what hand you’ll be dealt with” – a lesson learned from experience last year.
Nonetheless, the feeling is very much one of optimism with the club in position to be battling at the right end of the table come the conclusion of this campaign.