BOSS Gary Thornton has told his York City Knights troops to “prepare for battle” as they head to a Hemel outfit with a penchant for battering teams up the middle.
The Stags’ no-nonsense approach on their compact Pennine Way Stadium pitch brought a surprise victory over York’s Championship One title rivals Oldham the last time they played there.
It also contributed to an all-in brawl in their latest outing, at then leaders Hunslet, which led to Hemel duo Aaron Small and Romaine Navarrete being slapped with bans this week, for four games and one match respectively.
Such a physical test could prove untimely for the Knights, whose front row is already shorn of Austin Bell (ankle), Nathan Freer (head) and Jake Joynt (work) and could be without Iain Morrison (arm) this weekend too – absences which have left Thornton contemplating bringing in more loan recruits.
Furthermore, with York now sat at the league summit, the head coach reckons teams will be doubly keen to knock them off their perch.
“That fantastic result against Oldham has to be a warning shot for us, an indication of how tough and how good they will be,” said Thornton of the Stags.
“They’re a very physical team. Against Hunslet, there was that brawl but also some pretty tough challenges. It will be a physical game. It’s a small, tight pitch and they’ll be used to playing on it. I’m expecting a tough forward battle. They will try to batter us up the middle, and we have to be well-prepared.
“It’s another different challenge for us. It’s another long journey and a game against a tough team who will be fired up. Every team will treat us as their cup final. We’re top and everyone wants to knock the top team off their perch.
“We struggled to beat them at home and, while we played poorly that day and have improved, they will have got better too.”
The Knights’ front row has been bolstered by the return of “Mr Duracell” Jack Aldous, which will see Colton Roche revert to loose-forward, albeit playing more as a third prop.
But big-hitting Morrison, impressive since returning from injury and illness, might be out again rather than risk making a minor bicep tear worse. Fellow forward Jack Pickles is added to the squad despite ongoing adductor trouble.
Elsewhere in the pack, Ryan Mallinder is available again but will start on the bench, unable to shift Ryan Backhouse from his starting spot in the second row.
In the backs, James Morland returns at centre in place of Tyler Craig, while Harry Carter is left out as Thornton rotates the youngsters during a four-week period of away matches. Kriss Brining reverts to the replacement hooker role.
Hemel, shorn of Small and Navarrete, are also without Ben Young (fractured wrist) but welcome back Michael Brown into a 19-man party which also includes ex-Knights second-row Chris Clough and former reserve-team player Dan Ljizouli.
Stags coach Troy Perkins remained confident. “We’re down on troops, but we’re playing at home and I was encouraged by how we went against Hunslet. We’ve just got to stay in the battle this week,” he said.
On York, he added: “They’re a good team and where they’re sitting in the table proves that.
“Their outside backs are important to them - they get in and take some early carries, so we’ve got to combat that and slow down those first few plays.”
Hemel Stags: from Cameron, Morgan, Brown, Clement-Pascall, Hill, Coleman, Young, Howitt, Simons, Ljizouli, Mbaraga, Swindells, Clough, Chester, Herold, Bailey, Aldam, Lloyd-Jones, Kavanagh.
Referee: Chris Campbell (Widnes).