Barnstaple missing absent friends as injury jinx strikes
North Devon Journal and thisisnorthdevon.co.uk sports editor Andrew Jones looks at how the Barnstaple first team has changed in a rugby season beset by injuries and withdrawals.
Mark Lee; Linford Brock, Tom Heard, Josh Squire, Jimmy Manley; Neil Giddy, Ben Vellacott; James Lewis, Brad Slade, Joe Bussell, Josh Lee, Tom Skelding, Gary Turner, Alex Priest, Winston James.
Not a bad team. Certainly good enough to be eighth in National Three south west and run Brixham close.
But this wasn't the Barnstaple team who lost 18-16 to their Devon rivals at Pottington Road on Saturday.
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Heard was the only one of that XV to start and he lasted 67 minutes before being knocked out of the contest by a broken nose.
All the others have featured for Barum this season but have been lost to them through injury, illness, coaching courses, work commitments, Exeter Chiefs Academy matches or just drifting away from the game or the club.
And that was just for one game. Steve Perry, Toby Williamson, Luke Berry, Sam Roberts and Mike Sumner are among first-team regulars to have been sidelined this season. In fact, Will Topps, the full back, is the only ever-present.
It's a list as long as Kevin Squire's face after a Devon derby defeat. "It's the worst situation since I have been here as director of rugby," said Squire, who hasn't escaped the jinx himself after falling off the roof of the Chicken Shed stand at Pottington Road during its refurbishment.
Ben Lovell kicked a late contentious penalty to win the game for Brixham on Saturday – a repeat of what happened when Barnstaple lost 24-23 to Redingensians in their first home match of the season, on September 8.
On that occasion, Squire named what was arguably his first-choice team.
Will Topps; Linford Brock, Ryan Carter, Josh Squire, Toby Williamson; Steve Perry, Ben Vellacott; Mark Berry, Sam Roberts, Joe Bussell, James Lewis, Tom Skelding, Gary Turner, Kele Taofinu'u, Winston James.
Only seven of those started the Brixham game. "We have lost half a team," said Squire. And then some.
Look back even further, to the equivalent weekend last year, and the picture is even more staggering.
On January 28, 2012, when Barnstaple played another Devon derby – a 21-19 win at Newton Abbot – this was the team.
Will Topps; Luke Berry, Johny Carter, Ryan Carter, Toby Williamson; Neil Giddy, Nielson Webber; Mark Berry, Sam Roberts, Phil Gordon, John Ovenell, Tom Skelding, Gary Turner, Winston James, Dan Lee.
Seven of that line-up are out long-term or have been lost to the club altogether. An eighth, Phil Gordon, has made only the occasional appearance and was injured during Saturday's match.
And don't forget Jon Child, Mark Galliford, Harry Elliott, Jack Elliott and Richard Friend, who appeared for Barnstaple last season but have not been available this.
All of which sounds like an exercise in making excuses for a poor season.
Except Barnstaple aren't having a poor season. Disappointing, compared to last season's fifth-placed finish, but not poor.
They have won almost as many as they have lost – eight wins to ten defeats – and, give or take a win or two, are about where they would have expected to be even if they had been at full strength all season. They won't go down. They may yet win the Devon Senior Cup.
And amid the departures and absences, teenagers Ben Vellacott and Matt Gohl have emerged as outstanding performers; Tom Heard and James Comber have been recruited; and Ryan Carter, Luke Berry and Kele Taofinu'u have improved.
Will Topps; Luke Berry, Tom Heard, Ryan Carter, Toby Williamson; Steve Perry, Ross Williamson; Mark Berry, Sam Roberts, Phil Gordon, Matt Gohl, Ian Thatcher, Kele Taofinu'u, Mike Sumner, James Comber.
Not a bad team, either. Certainly good enough to run Brixham close.