By MARK BENGOECHEA
PETER WINTERBOTTOM admits he is excited about the talent in his squad as Esher prepare for the first of their pre-season games against Wimbledon on Saturday ahead of the new National League Two South campaign.
The Eees have had a huge turnaround of players with 24 new faces at Molesey Road following their heart-breaking relegation from National One in May
But Esher Director of Rugby Winterbottom says he is confident that he has a squad capable of mounting a strong title challenge as they bid to make an immediate return to the third tier of English rugby.
Not only has he been impressed with the newcomers, but Winterbottom says he has been equally delighted with the talent who did not get a chance to show their skills in the first team last season.
The first of the three pre-season friendlies against Wimbledon at Molesey Road (kick-off 12.15pm after the club clean-up morning) will be divided into three 30-minute periods with the aim of giving as many players as possible a run-out.
The following Saturday Esher travel to Canterbury before a double header against local rivals Richmond ahead of the big league opener at Redruth on September 7.
The players have been training for six weeks under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Harrison Edgson and now Winterbottom is looking forward to watching his new charges against Wimbledon.
He said: "It's a chance for everyone to get some game-time and for everyone to try and impress. We've seen everyone in training and some guys have done really, well, some not so well, but it's when they get on the pitch [that matters].
"We're looking at having three 30-minute periods. Some guys will double up and play two of the 30s, but not many. So, we're seeing lot of players, seeing what they can do, how their fitness is and how they fit in with other players.
"In the squad there are about 24 new guys, probably more new than existing. It's a lot but we've been training for six weeks and they're up to speed with the calls and the way we want to play.
"It's quite exciting because we haven't seen a lot of them play, apart from a few videos, so it's all looking good.
"I think we'll have 40 players playing on Saturday who could play first team rugby at some stage. Some will be Cardinals, some Abbots but there are some good lads further down the club. They'll be guys playing for the Abbots who could play first team."
It will be Winterbottom's second spell in charge at Esher and he insists he not fazed by the fact that there are so many new players at Molesey Road.
He said: "It's new for everyone, even the existing players. Selection will be on what happens in the next three games. That's what counts, not what happened last year or reputation.
"Some good lads turned up, but I've also been so impressed with some of the guys who were here last year who didn't get a sniff of the first team. They've been fantastic in training and I don't understand how they didn't play first team last year.
"But also, a few of the guys who hadn't been offered retainers just turned up and said 'I want to give it a go.' They have impressed in training and we have given them a contract, which is great.
"We already know some of the selections are going to be very difficult, very tight. The fact is that somebody will be in the twos and somebody will in the ones but there isn't a lot between them
"I think we have the squad to push for the title. I'm confident that if we stay relatively injury-free then I think we'll be able to play the style of rugby to win us games.
"We want to play a mobile fast game, especially early season. Whether it's wide or we go through the middle, we want to do everything at pace and at a high tempo. That is the key. We've put a lot of emphasis on defence and we want to be a very difficult side to play against.
"The only way we can do that is if we look at the defence as an aggressive defence, that we defend to get the ball back, not just defending to try and stop them and that's going to be out defensive mantra and if we get that right then I think we can really play.
"Obviously, we'll have to adapt to different conditions as the season goes on, but at the same time you can still play quick rugby in December and January."