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Big changes for Mowden
AS they prepare for their first full season at The Northern Echo Arena, Darlington Mowden Park have had an influx of 20 players, creating a selection headache ahead of today's testing opening match at Macclesfield.
The Cheshire club's strong late run in National One last season narrowly failed to save them from relegation and Mowden are expecting a tough battle up front.
They have beefed up the pack by handing a debut to former Tonga international Talite Vaioleti at No 8, while Teessider Pierce Phillips is back after his year with Leeds Carnegie and partners Chris Campbell at lock.
Other newcomers in the pack are prop Josh Bayford, who has played for England Students, and flanker Jack Allcock, a Cumbrian who went to Sedbergh School and played for England Under-16s.
Vaioleti, 32, spent time as a missionary in Australia before heading to Europe to play rugby. He has captained Jersey and also played for Wharfedale and Rotherham.
Bayford captained Durham University before graduating last year and has stayed on to do a masters degree. He takes the place of Dan Miller, who has returned to Darlington, while the only others to leave have been flanker Luke Wishnowski and utility forward Danny Dixon, who has returned to Billingham.
Centre Cameron Mitchell has been appointed captain at the age of 21, with coach Danny Brown describing him as "a leader on and off the pitch."
The only newcomer selected in the backs is England Schools winger Tom Kill, from Billingham, who is also training with Leeds.
Gavin Painter, who has returned from Blaydon, has to be content with a place on the bench as Tom Hodgson starts at fly-half in the absence of Grant Connon, who is recovering from a shoulder operation.
Connon's brother, Max, is at scrum-half as Zylon McGaffin is completing his studies in South Africa but is expected back for the second half of the season.
Brown added: "There is so much competition no-one can be 100 per cent certain of his place. We've had 45 players training in pre-season and it's tough for those who have missed out. They'll be playing against West Hartlepool."
Brown's fellow coach, John Newton, has taken over as Director of Rugby from Mike Keeligan, who is now the chairman in succession to John Widdall. Mowden also have a new commercial manager in Teessider Lee Rust, who has played for Middlesbrough, Leicester, Coventry and London Scottish.
He went on to be commercial director with Scottish, setting up an award-winning community scheme, plus a strong events business and sponsor list.
Seven new sponsors have signed up, the biggest being Virgen Group, an international investment firm, whose name will be on the front of the first-team shirts. On the back will be Marstons brewery, the Yorkshire Dale Meat Company, accountants Baines Jewitt, M Media & Design, SG Petch and Newitts, the sports kit and equipment supplier.
Rust said: "In an exceptionally short turnaround period all these sponsors have bought into what we are trying to achieve as a club.
"We recognise the potential of the Arena and we're aiming to develop that while still incorporating our traditional club ethos, with teams from under-sevens upwards.
"Rugby will be the focal point but we want this to be a business and community sports hub.
"It's already busy seven days a week."