It’s been quite a few years since anyone even considered giving Stourbridge ten out of ten, yet this weekend the barnstorming National Two North leaders bid to take their winning run into double figures.
The Stour Power have started the season in rampant fashion, nine straight victories – all with bonus points – have established the best offensive and defensive records in the division and a string of performances that have at times pulverised opponents, at others dissected them. Operation Rubber Ball is unfolding very nicely indeed.
On Saturday Leicester Lions will, probably in vain, try to resist the irresistible force and whilst one should never pre-judge an outcome, particularly not when the home side have prevailed in two-thirds of their matches this season, anything other than an away win would be a major surprise.
Achieve that and Neil Mitchell’s side would be a step nearer to emulating the Class of 2001, which won 11 straight and was promoted to level three at the end of a memorable campaign.
That, after all, is what this season is about for Stourbridge, whose 11-year stay at the top of the community game was ended in teeth-grindingly frustrating fashion when they were relegated in April.
It was, in truth, a season that never got going as Mitchell and his coaches were unable to find a way to produce a total greater, or even equal to, the sum of the squad’s parts.
There were flashes and even occasions when it looked as though Stour would turn it round but the fact remained that they never got value for what dominance they had up front and any potential they showed in the backs. Losing and mental frailty became a habit.
So when Mitchell’s offer to stay and put things right was accepted by the board, so began the task to rebuild not just the squad, but the playing side of the club.
“I thought about what had worked for me in the past, which had been having a second team. We had to be self sufficient,” Mitchell says.
“When we established a link with Worcester we were then relying on players that were only going to be available for two or three weeks at a time. That really didn’t work for us.
“We got to enjoy having guys like Matt Kvesic, Ollie Frost and Andy Short, and for a long time before that Alex Grove, but it was difficult to build up any momentum with that system.”
The non-appearance of dual-registered Warrior James Currie, whom Mitchell last summer ear-marked as his first-choice tighthead, put Stour on the back foot before a scrum had even crouched, touched, paused and engaged.
“We have to make sure our squad is both competitive and home-grown as much as possible and the only player we have from outside at the moment is Moseley’s Caolan Ryan,” he adds pointedly.
Also out with the DR scheme went Stour’s over-ambitious game-plan. Mitchell focused on adding depth and experience to his front five, which included former Wasps prop Nick Adams as player-coach, lineout expert Richard Stott from Moseley and the hugely experienced hooker Stewart Pearl.
Clubbing the opposition up front has become their main source of entertainment, although a back-line that includes a reinvigorated free spirit Tom Jarvis, the polished Nathan Bressington and the incongruously high-pedigree former Tonga international Sione Tu’ipulotu cannot be ignored as Luctonians found to their cost a few weeks ago.
The Herefordshire outfit rolled up at Stourton Park billed as Stour’s first real test of the season. Indeed, Alex Davidson’s men dominated possession by a ratio of three to one but they still ended up shipping six tries and 43 points as Stour’s threes punished them for every minor mishap.
Key to that process has been the recruitment of Mike Umaga as head coach. Stour retained virtually all of their playing staff from last season but none of their coaches as Chris Fortey and Thinus Delport found other opportunities.
So far Umaga’s appointment has proved inspired, even more so if it raised a few eyebrows after the ex-Samoan Test player’s stint in charge of Nuneaton ended in demotion.
“People are always going to associate me with that as a coach but what they wouldn’t have known at the time was my last two years at Nuneaton were spent with a playing budget of nil. It’s mighty difficult to keep getting players in for nothing,” Umaga says now.
“I think my knowledge of the division was important for Mitch and the players at a time when they were stepping into the unknown a little bit.
“Together we give the squad a bit of balance, thinking about what we are doing but at the same time there is a danger you don’t worry about anything else and there are some tough places to go in this league.”
Importantly Umaga has embraced the over-arching tactical policy that is easier to go around teams once you have first gone over them and while the ball-players in the side might want to demonstrate some of their more excessive talents, there is a policy they do not slip the leash until the hard graft has been done.
And therein lies the biggest danger to Stourbridge’s ambitions of returning to National One – themselves and the development of a superiority complex.
Mercurial full-back Jarvis responded to last Saturday’s needlessly hard-fought 36-22 win at Hull by warning against the temptation of taking liberties with lower-quality opponents. Jarvis claimed Stour went out to play Sevens before doing the donkey work.
If that sounds a bit like George Best proselytising about the perils of demon drink then it is at least a sign that the Mitchell and Umaga therapy is getting through, even if it is sometimes forgotten by those sat near the back.
“Our biggest danger is complacency,” admits Mitchell. “There haven’t been many signs of it yet and there certainly won’t be from the coaches because, speaking for myself, I took my eye off the ball last season and left things to chance – like the James Currie situation, that cost us.
“This season everything is about preparation, cutting down our errors, doing our debriefs and putting our planning in place to the extent that we know which players we want to start which games well in advance. There are no holes in the boat this year.”
And as nautical history tells us, vessels without holes are so much more buoyant.