2023 -24 SEASON PREVIEW
It’s going to be a season of transition as North Walsham the Club continues to fly the flag for Norfolk in National 2 East, travelling as far afield as Canterbury, Guernsey and Worthing. Off the field new Director of Rugby Niall Lear leads a vastly experienced restructured coaching setup of Steve Pope, Barry Frost, Alan Cooper and John Clarke which, says Rugby Operations Director Seb Anthony, “is the best in Norfolk and second to none in our League.” On the field, after many years of relative stability, the team that served the Club so well as it built towards promotion and then progressed up the Leagues, has inevitably begun to break up and there has been an influx of talented newcomers throughout the Summer with more expected.
As usual many newcomers are from local Clubs, eager to play at a higher level. Those include backs James Higgins, Callum Lewis (both Crusaders), Matt Austin (Holt) and Jack Pearson (Norwich), utility forward Kurt Ehret (Norwich) and flanker Jobe Brooks (Southwold). Backrower Hudson de Lucchi joins from Loughborough Students and there are two signings from Brooksby Melton College, hooker Kit Brodie and former Youth player back Jake Bailey. Colts looking to progress to senior rugby include hooker Pieter de Lange, last season’s Norwich School captain. From further afield come Irish prop James Douglas, back Wes McGuire from amateur Rugby League and four Australians: brothers Harry (fly half/centre) and Leo Langbridge (flanker) who have played in the Queensland Premiership for North Brisbane, and second rows Jack Cornish and James Douglas from Eastern Suburbs, Sydney.
They have some experienced boots to fill, following a raft of retirements amongst long serving players: Chris Godwin (306 appearances since 2004), Will Hodgson (206/2011), Tom Knight, Jim Riley, George Youngs plus the player/ coach duo of James Knight and Ryan Oakes, the former concentrating on his job at Gresham’s, the latter moving to Australia. Meanwhile Frank Scott, Ethan Sikorski (joined Barnes) and Matt Musindi (Tonbridge) have relocated for employment reasons. Others leaving include George Loose (joined Bury St Edmunds), Jordan Mustard (Wymondham) and Matt Hodgson, who led the side so ably for the past five years.
A strong core of last year’s Vikings remain – John Clarke, Connor Dudley, Charlie Fethney, Josh Jones (currently injured), Ethan Holmwood, Dan Smith, Tim Weber- whilst many of the successful Raiders squad such as Russell Arnold, Lucas Atherton, Henly Brightman, Alfie Coop, Ross Magnus (back from Australia) and Billy Tait, who all sampled National League rugby last season, are ready to play bigger roles in 2023 -24.
Within the League Esher (relegated), Westcombe Park and Wimbledon (both promoted) replace Blackheath, Rochford and Westcliff. As always there has been lots of player movement but suggesting frontrunners in this very competitive league would be speculation. Reports indicate Bury, Tonbridge and the newcomers have been spending heavily.
It feels like a new era, new leadership at Board level, new coaches and players, and a system of payments to players. “It’s important to celebrate what’s been achieved,” said Lear. “Arriving and staying in National 2 as the only amateur club was special, we’re unlikely to see that again. With players moving on for various reasons we have to reset. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen so far. The Club has a long term development plan in place: this year is about creating an environment where players can express themselves on and off the field. There will be ups and downs, but we’re building for the future.” That future includes remaining rooted in the local community providing opportunities for local players of all abilities and both sexes, running a strong Junior section and building on its Partnerships with the UEA, Easton College and Schools.