Rugby: Wheat anticipating tight derby tussle
TONY Wheat says Longton will relish a first competitive visit to Sandbach knowing that a win could see his side leapfrog the division's surprise package.
The return of a clutch of long-term injury lay-offs, including Scott Rawlings, has helped Longton win three of their last four matches and rise up into mid-table.
Sandbach, on the other hand, have lost four of their last five to gradually slip down the National League Three Midlands standings.
It means that, after contrasting starts to the season, the local rivals are separated by only one place and four points ahead of the meeting at Bradwall Road.
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Longton director of rugby Tony Wheat, below, said: "Sandbach have done really well this season.
"It is the first time we have ever played there in a competitive match and this season could be a one-off for them in the Midlands rather than the North region.
"If this is their only season then they have been a great addition to our division. It's just around the corner for us, they're a good bunch of lads and we'll be up for it.
"We've had one really good, tight game with them already this season when they were winning 13-3 at one point before we came back to take it 23-13. I'm expecting something similar this time around."
Sandbach, aside from a heavy defeat at the hands of leaders Ampthill, can consider themselves a little unfortunate not to have taken more points before Christmas.
Consecutive defeats to Broadstreet, Hinckley and Bournville were by margins of five points, three points and two points respectively.
However, they then destroyed Mansfield 52-0 to end a successful 2012 on a high and are still targeting a top-half finish on the back of promotion last season.
Wheat said: "They had a really good start and perhaps thought they could make a mark at level five before taking a bit of a knock when they lost a few on the bounce.
"Then they whitewashed Mansfield in their last match before not playing for three weeks. You can't be sure if that break is a good or bad thing, but they will certainly be a good test for us."
Back-row lynch pin Rich Thompson comes back in for Longton, but the continued absence of Chris Buck (shoulder) and Sam Moores (elbow) means regular centre Rawlings is expected to continue to deputise at fly-half.
Wheat said: "Scott started out at number 10 many moons ago before he decided he preferred running over people and he can still do a very good job there. He's got a very good kicking game.
"He gives us a new dimension wherever he plays and I don't think it's any coincidence that in the three matches since he has returned, Hendry Vaka has scored three tries."
Vaka's run of form has lifted him to fifth in the division's try-scoring charts, but his 11 for the campaign is still in the shadow of Hinckley's Devon Constant (19).
It has also given Longton a 10-point cushion between themselves, in ninth, and Syston, in the third relegation spot.
Wheat says things are looking up, but no-one is taking anything for granted.
"Anywhere higher than fifth is probably too much to ask for now, but we would take that considering the start of the season," he said.
"Having said that, before we start counting any chickens we have to keep clawing our way away from the relegation zone.
"We have a tough run of fixtures coming up and we want to get as many points on the board as we can."