Title race in National One will be close, Grace predicts

PLYMOUTH Albion back row favourite Eoghan Grace predicts his return to the club will coincide with one of the tightest National League One title races ever as the Brickfields outfit look to reclaim the place in the Championship they lost in 2015.

Grace spent last season at promotion rivals Coventry following the financial problems that engulfed Albion during a difficult 2015-16 campaign, but the former Exeter Chiefs and Connacht flanker is delighted to be back home in Devon.

The 29-year-old told The Indy: ‘My family were still in Exeter whilst I was at Coventry and commuting once a week was hard, so it’s great the deal with Plymouth came together because the club is growing and there’s a real positive mood.

‘When I first came to Plymouth in 2013 we did better than expected by finishing eighth in the Championship, but after that there were wholesale changes on the field while off the field things became a bit of a mess.

‘One thing led to another and we went down, and for a while it looked like the entire club would go as well, but finally they’ve got back on track and the club’s in a far healthier place.’

Grace explained: ‘I’ve come back to a business, rather than just a rugby club, which is great because I’ve always been an ambitious player and person for the clubs I’ve been at.

‘Seeing the potential there was at Plymouth Albion before, it was sad it wasn’t followed through and very frustrating as well, whereas now you go into the Brickfields and you can see there’s a business strategy to go with the rugby on top.

‘There definitely seems to be a long-term plan rather than a short-term one of simply surviving, which can only be a good thing.’

Grace believes stability off the field will translate to what happens on it, with Albion amongst the title favourites after clinching the runners-up spot last season behind runaway National One champions Hartpury College.

The Irishman said: ‘The fact that no one came down from the Championship means everyone is going to be chomping at the bit to fill that promotion slot, thinking they have a real good chance this year, and there’s no odds-on favourite.

‘Instead, I believe there’ll be a pack of five or six teams at the top that will be bunched a lot more closely together than in years gone by.

‘I do think Coventry will be up there because they’ve had a year under (rugby director) Rowland Winter to bed things in and they finished strong towards the end of last season, but I also expect us to be up there as well.

‘Albion did well last year and, having played against the boys, they were a tough team to beat. Our head coach Kieran Hallett has added to the squad now and we’ve got greater depth, so it’s coming together quite well.

‘It will be a close one, though, and you’d expect teams like Moseley, Rosslyn Park, Ampthill and Blackheath will have something to say for themselves, but I’d like to think we’ll have a good showing and push for top spot.’

Off the field, an exciting development has been Albion’s acquisition of the old Stonehouse Creek social club and playing fields with a view to ramping-up the club’s community presence and increasing home attendances.

Grace, who now doubles-up as an Albion community development coach, explained: ‘Having taken Stonehouse Creek on board, the club now has more facilities close to Brickfields for us to host community events.

‘The overall idea is to get an academy set-up, get into schools, develop our community programmes and take the whole club up a level.

‘We obviously have other sports in the city and with Plymouth Argyle doing so well with their community programmes, we’re looking to learn from them. Our owners have put a blueprint in place for what can be done and we want Plymouth kids to be Albion rugby players.’

Grace added: ‘In the past, Plymouth Albion has had a first team and that’s been the sole focus, but we want more people involved and for us to become recognised as an inclusive, family-orientated rugby club for the whole city.

‘We know we’ve got Exeter up the road, but developing our own minis and juniors is huge and we want parents to know that if their kids can’t make it at the Chiefs, there’s a great standard of rugby here at Plymouth.

‘We want Plymouth Albion to be THE place to be, on and off the pitch.’

This article appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.