Ebbw Vale could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu when the new SWALEC Championship kicks-off on Saturday – but that will be rapidly replaced by a step into the unknown a week later.
East and west will collide when six clubs from last season’s SWALEC One East and seven from SWALEC One West, along with Pontypool, form the exciting new division with last season’s respective east and west champions, Ebbw Vale and Tata Steel, bidding to claim the inaugural title.
And Ebbw Vale will be in familiar territory when they travel to the Memorial Ground to take on Glamorgan Wanderers in Round 1 before they open their home programme by hosting Narberth at Eugene Cross Park in Round 2.
“It will be a massive challenge for us as we really do not know what to expect from around half the clubs who we have never played before,” said Ebbw Vale captain and lock Ashley Sweet.
“We know what to expect from the east sides but the west is something of an unknown quantity. We have never met clubs like Tata Steel and Whitland and we are really looking forward to those new experiences.
“However, on Saturday it will be a case of ‘same again’ as last season we started out at Glamorgan Wanderers and that is where we start this season.
“There is a fair bit of rivalry between us since they beat us in the Principality Premiership play-off match in 2011 so it should be a great opening match for us at the start of a new tournament.
“And, with clubs from the east and west now playing in one division, that should make it even more exciting as we will be playing against new players and new teams at new venues.
“We have got a very young squad, which should be positive for Ebbw Vale in the coming years, and coaches Neil Edwards and Jason Strange have recruited well while putting us through a hard pre-season.
“We pride ourselves on our fitness and we like to play a high tempo, fast flowing game so we hope we can continue in that way.”
Joining Ebbw Vale, Tata Steel, Pontypool, Wanderers and Whitland in a division brimming with potential will be Narberth, Bargoed, Bridgend Athletic, Bonymaen, Llanharan, Newbridge, Cardiff Met, Blackwood and Beddau.
Tata Steel were the champions of the west last season and captain Gareth Edwards believes it will take something even more special to be crowned the champions of the new 14-club division.
“Of course it would be great to go all the way but we appreciate it is going to be a really tough challenge against quality sides,” said the prop forward.
“It will definitely be a lot harder than last season – especially up front – but we feel we have recruited well and are stronger all round.
“We have had a great pre-season and the boys have trained well but we all know how important it is to get off to a good start and travelling to Narberth will be tough.
“We pipped Narberth by a point for the title last season and, on a personal front, I have played there eight times and never won so I know just how hard it is to play there.”