Sunderland complete their fixtures for the calender year on Saturday with Hartlepool Rovers providing the opposition at Ashbrooke on Saturday.
In a year that is probably best described as frustrating, Sunderland will be looking to go out with a bang for the Ashbrooke faithful, against a side who fancied their chances for promotion at the start of the season, but who have seen those ambitions dampened somewhat by a couple of surprise defeats in recent weeks to Guisborough and Acklam.
Sunderland started 2011 in a relegation dogfight and despite some encouraging performances continually found themselves on the wrong end of close results, only narrowly escaping relegation.
Optomism was renewed after a good preseason but the start of the 2011/12 campaign didn’t go too much better with an early exit from the County Cup alongside three consecutive league defeats and a draw, all against sides that Sunderland felt they were capable of beating.
Since then, their fortunes have turned around somewhat, thanks to the return of several key players alongside the emergence of some talented youth players.
The return of Sean Bellon and Matt Goforth, as well as the form of Tom Townend have added a dynamism to the Sunderland backline that was missing in previous seasons.
Added to this the graduation of a number of youngsters to the first team such as fly half Guy Kingsley Smith and England Colleges flanker Joe Arrowsmith as well as the consistantly brilliant form of Sunderland Uni student Greg Littlewood and the arrival at the club of Wallsend powerhouse Dave Robson and Irish scrum half Mark Henry the future is looking a lot brighter for Sunderland in 2012.
Saturday’s game will be a huge test of just how far the side have come since they were comfortably beaten by Rovers in the opening weeks of the season.
As far as team news goes a relatively unchanged side is named.
In the backs Mark Henry reverts to his favoured scrum half position after a try scoring performance on the wing last week.
Henry’s place on the wing is taken by Sam Jordan while Matt Goforth must make do with a spot on the bench after missing the last few games.
In the pack Saturday’s game will mark the end of an era for a Sunderland stalwart as openside flanker Andy Black finally hangs up his boots as far as first team rugby is concerned at the tender age of 40 in what he is calling a “pause in his career rather than retirement.”
Despite his advanced years, Black has been an integral part of Sunderland’s side since his return from a stint with local rivals Durham City and will be a hard act to follow for those players competeing to step into his shirt at 7.
Coach Fras Kennedy paid tribute to Black, “Andy has been a great servant for Sunderland RFC. His fitness levels put some of the youngers players to shame and we will miss his playing abilities and enthusiasm massively. We wish him well and thank him for everything he has done for the teams he has played for. Let’s hope we can win today and give him a winning send off.”
The second team are sweating on the fitness of a number of players as they take their unbeaten run to Blaydon 3’s who will be a huge test for Rob Stormont’s side.
A rare appearance at home this week for the thirds with Barnard Castle seconds the visitors. Tony Watt is able to name a large squad for their final fixture of 2011.
Sunderland at home to Hartlepool Rovers meet 1pm: Robson, Harrison, Arrowsmith, Carter, Belfield, Finch, Black, Watt, Henry, Kingsley Smith, Jordan, Townend, Bellon, Walton, Littlewood. Reps:Buckley, Elstob, Goforth
Sunderland II away to Blaydon III meet 12.00: Summers, Geehan, Bengochea, Hall, Smith, Fish, Dogoda, Reay, Mackie, Brace, Hinder, Haley, Bain, Dobson, Tolley, Hands.
Sunderland III at home to Barnard Castle II meet 1.15pm: Marshall, Wright, Brown, Turnbull, Bellfield, Edmundson, Hurst, Jackson, Richardson, Grainger, Wallace, Graham, Duff, Ditchburn, Jones, Reah, Cowans, Clinton, Gallimore, Swann.