HENLEY Hawks are “ready to go” for the new season, according to head coach Nigel Dudding who has targeted a top-five finish for his side in their return to National League 1.
The Hawks warmed up for the season with a 45-5 defeat to Championship club London Welsh at Dry Leas last Saturday but Dudding believes his players are equipped to handle life in the third tier.
Dudding said: “We feel pretty well prepared. We deliberately chose a tough warm-up campaign of six games and it’s left us really prepared and battle-hardened.
“We want to be a top-five team. If we can do that it would be a tremendous achievement.”
Dudding believes his players are capable of reaching their target after performing to a National League 1 standard last season.
His team were promoted as champions of National League 2 South, having amassed 120 points and scoring 1,261 points.
They were unbeaten at home all season and Dudding is looking to extend this record into the forthcoming campaign.
He said: “Every game is key but we’ve made a target to be unbeaten at home because that’s crucial.
“Then we want to pick up those valuable away points where we can. There will be some tough away games, there’s no disputing that.
“If we can make Dry Leas a fortress it will make us well-placed.”
The Hawks have had mixed experiences in their results in pre-season but Dudding knows they will not be judged by games against professional outfits such as London Welsh.
He said: “The results showed they are better conditioned than us but they are full-time professionals who train every day.
“Skill-wise, there was not much between the sides. We want to continue doing what we did last year and would like to improve on that.”
Several new players have joined to bolster the squad and Dudding is confident on reaching their targets as long as they can remain relatively injury-free.
Dudding said the key to success was continuity after winning over many observers with an attacking style of rugby.
“Last year was successful and we played a unique brand of rugby,” he said. “We want to take that into National League 1 but get more physical and stronger in defence.
“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got a set piece to compete at the highest level. We need to be more accurate.
“But we’re not going to change much from last season, we will just be making some moderations.
“Some teams have reputations for being dour in the way they play but we will be doing our best to continue the way we played last year.
“It’s based on a really solid defence and an ability to keep the ball in our hands.
“Looking at the analysis last year, people thought we were a running and open side but the forwards got involved as well so it’s very much a 15-man game.”
Henley start their season with a visit of north-east outfit Tynedale and Dudding knows a good start is important.
He said: “We’re ready to go and we’ve got to make sure we get off to a good start. Tynedale like to move the ball around, which is unusual for a northern club. They like to play a bit and they’ve clearly been able to play well.
“We anticipate a hard match, which will test both sides but home advantage and our positive attitude should see us through.”
Almost 700 spectators turned out to watch the Hawks play London Welsh on Saturday and, with the record crowd of 3,270 that observed the Worthing match in May still fresh in the memory, Dudding has called on Henley to continue to show its support.
He said: “I just hope it will be a nice day and people turn out. It will be really nice if we can get the same number down to get the league off to a bang.
“We’re really fortunate in Henley to be blessed with so much sport in this town and it would be great if the community can turn out to support us.”