Melton RFC head coach Gareth Collins is ready to put his faith in youth this weekend when his injury-hit squad begin the new season.
The First XV begin their third consecutive season in Midlands One East with an intriguing trip to Rugby Lions on Saturday (kick-off 3pm).
Hopes of starting the new campaign refreshed and at full-strength were dashed as the injury problems which plagued much of last season linger on.
Carl Prior and Dan Wakefield hoped to return having missed the whole of last season.
But complications from knee surgery have extended Prior’s spell on the sideline, while Wakefield now faces surgery on his troublesome ankle.
Klay Radford played through injury at the tail end of last season to steer Melton away from relegation trouble, but now also needs knee surgery.
Melton will also be without up-and-coming winger Harry Wood who broke his arm in Melton’s pre-season defeat to Market Harborough, while Lee Miller has joined higher-league South Leicester, fly-half Matt Cox returns to Newark, and captain Marcus Badham is moving to Manchester through work.
The absence of all of this experience could well force Collins on to the pitch ahead of schedule from his own long-term knee injury.
“I may be required earlier than I’d hoped,” he admitted.
“I played a sevens tournament to see how the injury was, and I would say indifferent, but I may well be needed because of all the experienced backs we have out at the moment.
“We’ll be up against it from the start, but we have more to fall back on this year and hopefully we can ride it out, and become stronger as people come back.”
If the injury jinx gave Collins anything positive last season it was the chance to blood a good number of Colts into senior rugby.
They will be expected to step up again, but this time will have valuable experience behind them.
One of the club’s leading former Colts, Harvey Green, will play an important role as Cox’s replacement at fly-half.
Collins added: “It’s a younger and bigger squad than we’ve had for the last few years and it’s going to be tough, but we’re confident; we’ve had a really good summer.
“A lot of the young players who have stepped up from the Colts are doing very well and have given us more depth, while Harvey will play a different style of rugby from 10.”
Melton have also strengthened externally, bringing in back-row Chris Merlane and full-back Jack Williams from Market Harborough, and hope to complete the signing of a prop in the coming weeks.
“I’m very excited about our new signings,” Collins said.
“Chris is a very solid back-row who can play at six or seven, and Jack is a very talented footballer who plays on the sevens circuit.”
Melton could also benefit from the fresh approach that a new captain, Leon Gormley, may deliver.
“Leon has been our standout player ever since I’ve been at the club, and thankfully he decided to stay rather than play at a higher level which he absolutely could do.
“He is a different player and a different character for us, but he will lead from the front.
“Marcus is a character that will be hard to replace, and a captain that’s hard to follow, but I’m glad we have Leon to do that.”
As well as serving as a barometer of squad strength, interest in Saturday’s opener also comes in terms of the opposition.
Rugby Lions are the biggest club name in the division, having played in as high as the second tier of English rugby.
Years of upheaval off the pitch sparked the club’s freefall through the divisions, and they narrowly avoided relegation from Midlands One West last season before their switch to the eastern division.
They are also a club that Collins is well familiar with, having played from a five-year-old, through to the senior ranks where he played four seasons.
He said: “I have very fond memories of playing there and my family still live in the town so it will be nice to go back, but also unusual.
“We’re expecting a very tough opening game against a big club for this level of rugby, but we’re confident we are ready and will make a positive start.”