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"Next year, there will be a lot of change - but it's exciting change."

Newbury Ladies head coach Joe Harwood sets sights on transitioning more players after a successful 2017-18 season

Fiona Tomas

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Fiona Tomas

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"Next year, there will be a lot of change - but it's exciting change."

AS one door closes, another one opens – it’s the adage that Newbury Ladies RFC have had to embrace this 2017-18 season, which culminated in triumphant fashion a fortnight ago.

The Blues ran in a mammoth 14 tries in their last game against Cullompton of the season earlier this month in an epic epilogue to what has been a challenging, yet rewarding season for the Monks Lane outfit.  

Had they scored another, they would have finished second in Championship South West 2 on points’ difference.

But third place – in an entirely new league following league promotion last year – is nothing to be sniffed at.

Losses to Guildford, Teddington and Wimbledon Ladies saw the Blues loosen their grip on the championship, which they had led for the majority of the season.

Joe Harwood’s side had chalked up an impressive eight league wins from nine by mid-January, before being hit by an untimely spate of injuries.

Harwood admits his squad’s depleted numbers meant the second half of the season ‘felt a bit flat’, but he is determined to look at the bigger picture.

“If you’d asked anyone of us coaches, players, physios before the start of the season if we’d finish third, then we probably would have laughed at you,” said the 25-year-old.  

“Some things were controllable, that we could have done better, like the amount of injuries we had.

“But for the second half of the season we had the opportunity to give some players the chance to play 80 minutes of rugby week in, week out.

“Going into next season, they can use that experience where hopefully we can start strongly.

Reduced playing numbers allowed valued game time for some of the side’s usual benchwarmers, while there was the opportunity to blood recent recruits.

Among them was Lotti Cargen, who brought to the side her wealth of experience from hockey through her impressive stints in the front row which earned her a host of ‘forward of the match’ awards.

Despite being brand new to rugby, the team have also benefitted from Jemma Thripp, whose magical pace has been instrumental in galvanizing Newbury’s back line. Having been involved with the England Quidditch set-up, Thripp finished as the side’s top try scorer, conjuring an impressive 10 in nine matches.

The efforts of newcomers Lauren Hassett and Emma Swinton have also not gone unnoticed, nor has the development of 21-year-old Lizzie Harris, who has cemented her status as the team’s first-choice fullback with her fiery lines and intelligent footwork.

“We lost games but there were also a lot of positive performances in terms of playing at that level.”

“For everyone, bar a couple, it was the highest level of rugby they’d ever played at.”

They – and others – have already laid the foundations for next season’s squad, which Harwood imagines will shape up a lot differently.

Stalwart scrumhalf Jeannie Ivanov is set to hang up her boots and join the side’s coaching team, with number eight Hannah Ward also calling time on her rugby career.

Harwood also anticipates that playmaker Megan Horwood, who has juggled commitments with both Newbury and Wasps Ladies this season, will spend more time with the London-based Tyrrells Premier 15s outfit.

“Next year, there will be a lot of change, but its exciting change and it will be an ideal opportunity to bring in some new faces,” he said.

“It will be a very different make up to the squad which is great for players and coaches.

Yet while he has already earmarked next season as transitional one, Harwood insists his side are more than capable of targeting the top end of the table in what will be his third season as head coach.

“There’s no reason why we can’t finish in the top four or five,” he said.

“We’ll still have some very good players I wouldn’t anticipate us being as strong – I might well be wrong. This lot continue to surprise me.”

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