Peterborough Lions have been dealt a massive blow ahead of the resumption of the English Clubs Championship.
They lost two of their key front row forwards during the Christmas break and will return to Midlands Premiership action against Doncaster Phoenix at Solstice Park, Bretton, on Saturday (2.15pm) with a weaker starting XV.
Hooker Wes Cope, who joined the Lions from South Leicester at the start of the season, has returned to the National League Division Two club while powerful prop Ben Howard has decided to uproot and go and live in New Zealand.
Cope had been one of the best players so far this season while Howard scored some crucial tries in tight games.
“It’s certainly a big blow for us losing two front row forwards of that calibre,” said Lions chairman Andy Moore.
“South Leicester had been trying to get Wes back for a couple of months and I don’t think he was really enjoying his rugby here.
“And we can’t keep people here if their heart’s not in it.
“Ben has been wanting to go to New Zealand for some time - I think his wife is from that way - and he’s just got his working visa.
“And what makes matters worse is that our player/coach Vili Ma’asi, who could have come in at hooker and done just as good a job - if not better - has hurt his leg and isn’t fit enough to play on Saturday.
“We have decent back-up players and will soldier on with what we’ve got for the time being.
“But watch this space - Vili has two more Tongans lined up and one of them is a hooker. Hopefully they’ll arrive soon.”
The Lions will start 2018 in second place in the table and that’s where they’ll be hoping to finish to secure a promotion play-off place.
Catching runaway leaders Birmingham is a tall order and even Moore, a man never afraid to issue a bold boast, concedes they are home and hosed.
“They are a very good side, worthy champions. I can’t see them throwing it away from here,” added Moore.
The Lions will be looking to complete the double over Doncaster after winning 30-11 in South Yorkshire in September.
But Doncaster, who are fourth in the table, will be cock-a-hoop after winning 103-0 last time out against Old Halesonians.
Borough also start 2018 with a home game.
They entertain Leighton Buzzard at Fengate (2.15pm) in Midlands Division One and will also be looking to complete a double.
Back in September they won 23-20 at Buzzard without playing particularly well.
Borough are fifth in the table, five places above Buzzard, who lost 62-5 at home to Paviors in their last game of 2017 and 43-7 at Old Northamptonians the game before that.
Oundle are also at home in Midlands Division One. They play Melton Mowbray in a mid-table clash. Oundle are seventh and Melton Mowbray eighth.