SUNDERLAND Rugby Club open their Durham and Northumberland Division Two season against Prudhoe and Stocksfield at Hill View on Saturday (3pm), hopeful of banishing the painful memories of their disastrous 2012/13 campaign.
A positive pre-season, which has seen an influx of returning and new players to the first-team squad, culminated in a 20-14 victory over First Division new boys Bishop Auckland last weekend.
Last season’s club captain, Pete Harrison, has missed most of pre-season with a back injury, so former captain Peter Carter has taken over the reins again, and has set his sights on an immediate return to Division One.
Prudhoe and Stocksfield present a bit of an unknown quantity for the Ashbrooke men, who, other than the absence of Harrison, have a largely clean bill of health.
Jake Belfield faces a fitness test on an ankle injury picked up against Bishop before being confirmed in the second row alongside Carter. Craig Elstob hopes to recover from an injury to take his place on the bench.
In the forwards, exciting new signing Damion Martinez will start at loose head.
Martinez, joined in the front row by Chris Geehan and Alan Ross, has made an instant impact in pre-season with his strong scrummaging and powerful ball carrying.
Martin Watt, John Drummond and Bryan Finlay will feature in a new-look back row, with the return of former captain Watt, at number eight, a huge boost. Work commitments have restricted Finlay’s appearances in recent years, while Drummond missed most of last season with injury.
Sunderland struggled most in the backs last term, but things are looking much more positive now.
Scrum-half Gavin Stirling makes his first-team debut this weekend, having impressed for the seconds towards the end of last season. He is partnered with Ian Dobson at fly-half.
The pace and power of Matt Goforth is teamed up with the creativity of Tom Townend in the centre, with a back three of Dan Abraham, Dom Arkley and Michael Heffernan full of try-scoring potential.
After a tough warm-up friendly against Horden last week, things do not get any easier for new second team manager Graeme Brown as he takes his side to Morpeth for their opening league fixture.
Brown and new skipper Clive Fish have named a side which is a mix of young talent and experienced heads.
A lack of back players means two of the more mobile forwards, Mick Matthews and Liam Evans, are forced to play on the wing. The welcome inclusion of Sam Vaughan and Sam Jordan adds experience to the backline.
In the pack, Dean Marshall will be looking to get to grips with yet another set of engagement laws at scrum time. But Fish, James Hansen, Ellis Allen and James Cogden should give plenty of support.
Sunderland I (home to Prudhoe and Stocksfield, at Hill View, meet 1.30pm at Ashbrooke): Martinez, Geehan, Ross, Carter, Belfield, Drummond, Finlay, Watt, Stirling, Dobson, Arkley, Goforth, Townend, Abraham, Heffernan, Buckley, Elstob, O’Donovan
Sunderland II (away to Morpeth II, meet 12.15pm): Dean Marshall, Jason Wright, Kristian Summerside, Clive Fish, James Hanson, Ellis Allen, Adam Reay, Jimmy Cogden, Michael Brace, Louis Sop, Mick Matthews, Sam Vaughan, Harry Levison, Liam Evans, Sam Jordan. Subs: Chris Turner, Rory Flindall, Jamie Cowans, Robin Watson, Jonny Parker, Glyn Jackson, Philly Belfield.