Jersey Reds conclude their league season with a shot at glory on their home turf this weekend, knowing that a win will see them claim the RFU Championship title for the first time.
The Reds put themselves in pole position thanks to a hard-earned 19-13 win over former leaders Ealing Trailfinders last Saturday, cheered on by a crowd of more than 3,000. This set up the chance to shoot for silverware – if they can maintain a nine-match winning run in the Championship.
A familiar foe will line up on the opposite side of the halfway line at Stade Santander International – Ampthill were involved in what was previously one of the biggest games in the history of Jersey rugby at Twickenham in 2010 and will now face the Island side again in a decisive contest.
Victory in the final league outing – no bonus point is required – would put the Island side out of range of Ealing and secure the first silverware for the Reds since they claimed the National 1 title in 2012.
Director of Rugby Harvey Biljon and his fellow coaches have largely kept faith with the match-day squad selected for the Ealing showdown, with just two new faces appearing in this week’s XXIII.
The starting XV sees six changes and a positional switch, reflecting the level of competition for many of the starting shirts across the season.
Three of the changes are in the pack: Huw Owen comes into the squad and earns the start at loose-head as Sam Grahamslaw moves to the bench after a massive 80-minute shift against Ealing, while hooker Eoghan Clarke starts and James Hadfield is rotated to the bench. Stevie Longwell remains at tight-head, in front of the familiar engine room pairing of Sean O’Connor and Macauley Cook.
The Reds’ back row sees the recall of Max Argyle, who made his 150th Jersey appearance in the recent win at Bedford and was an unused replacement last Saturday. This means a move to number 8 for James Dun, with skipper Lewis Wynne retained in his regular berth on the other flank and Alun Lawrence shuffled to the bench.
Scrum-halves James Mitchell and James Elliott are also rotated, with Elliott starting alongside Russell Bennett, while Dan Barnes comes in at centre to partner Alex McHenry and Jordan Holgate moves to the bench. In the back three there’s a starting place for Will Brown, scorer of the winning try against Ealing, with Tomi Lewis and Brendan Owen holding their places and Ben Woollett switched to the bench.
Six of the Reds’ replacements were involved in the Ealing match, the exception being lock forward James Scott, who comes in for Hamish Bain.
The two sides will be meeting for the sixth time since Ampthill were promoted to level two in 2019, with four of the five previous games having taken place at Dillingham Park. The first encounter in November 2019 was by far the highest-scoring, with the Reds claiming seven of the 12 tries and winning 38-47.
Following the Covid shutdown in March 2020, depriving Ampthill of a trip to Jersey scheduled for just a few days later, the Bedfordshire side again played host in May 2021, this time behind closed doors as the visitors won 14-29, while in January 2022 Jordan Holgate’s late try was the crucial score in a 12-17 Jersey win.
The only league game on Jersey turf was in October 2021 as the Reds scored two late tries to salvage a 17-all draw, while the opening game of the current campaign finished 21-36 at Dillingham Park.
Prior their Championship acquaintance, the two clubs had played three times before in 1st XV games. At the end of the 2009/10 season, each was champion of their respective division at level 5, then referred to as National 3, and after winning semi-final matches they were paired on the grandest of rugby stages – Twickenham – in the national final.
The encounter at ‘HQ’ in early May 2010 was a memorable day, with the Reds winning a tight match by 21-12 thanks to tries by Ashley Elphinston, Ed Dawson and Ashley Maggs, plus two penalties from Dan Hawkes.
Ampthill have twice visited the Island for pre-season games, losing 26-14 in August 2010 and 35-22 six years later. One Jersey player survives from that day, with Argyle having made his second appearance after joining the Reds that summer from Rotherham Titans.
Among the touring ‘Mob’ to Jersey this weekend will be the Ampthill Colts XV, who will take on their Jersey counterparts in a curtain-raiser at 10am on the main pitch at the Stade.
The home side are hoping for another big crowd for the big game, with spectators urged to buy their tickets online in advance (via THIS LINK) and to allow plenty of time for their journeys to the ground.
For those unable to attend, the game will be streamed live via the Championship website, with radio commentary available via BBC Jersey, and score updates on the Reds' Twitter site.
The rugby season will not conclude this weekend, with the Reds facing a Championship Cup semi-final away to Cornish Pirates on Friday May 5th and seeking to progress to the final of the competition on the weekend of May 12-14th.
Jersey Reds squad v Ampthill & District (H) – 2022/23 RFU Championship, game 22/22, Stade Santander International, Saturday April 29th, k-o 3pm
Brendan Owen; Tomi Lewis, Alex McHenry, Dan Barnes, Will Brown; Russell Bennett, James Elliott.
Huw Owen, Eoghan Clarke, Stevie Longwell, Sean O’Connor, Macauley Cook, Max Argyle, Lewis Wynne (capt), James Dun.
James Hadfield, Sam Grahamslaw, Adam Nicol, James Scott, Alun Lawrence; James Mitchell, Jordan Holgate, Ben Woollett.
18 May 2023
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