DORSET'S top two swimming clubs have sensationally agreed to field three combined teams for the newly-renamed National Arena Swimming League, whose regional rounds start next week.

The dramatic move by Bourne-mouth Dolphins and Ferndown Otters will instantly make their combined A team a major force in the league at national as well as regional level.

In fact, coaches in both clubs are confident they will be challenging the all-conquering Ply-mouth Leander in both the West and national finals in December and April respectively.

The move is an early by-product of the merger talks between Dolphins and Otters, although both clubs stress it is “not a precursor” to a merger, which will require a vote by both clubs’ memberships.

“It’s more of a trial run,” said Dolphins’ acting head coach Sam Woodward.

Coaches and officials this week won a race against time to register swimmers for both clubs.

Western League secretary Sheila Bryant confirmed to the Echo that more than 120 swimmers dual-registered on Monday just 48 hours before the September 30 deadline.

However, it was already too late for a name change so the A team will swim as Bournemouth Dolphins and the B team as Ferndown Otters, both in the Premier Division West.

A joint C team will compete as Bournemouth Dolphins B in Division Two.

Woodward said the decision to swim the A team under Bournemouth’s name was taken solely because Dolphins placed higher last year – second in the West to Ferndown’s ninth, and eighth in the national A final.

The A team will be jointly coached in the first round at Newport on October 10 by Woodward and Otters’ head coach Tony Watson, with their respective assistant coaches Mark Corben and Emma Hirst attending the B team’s fixture at Weston-super-Mare.

Watson said: “It’s going to be far more competitive and therefore more exciting to be competing for the top three rather than mid-table. It will be interesting to see how we stand up to the top teams.”

Woodward said: “I think everyone is a bit shocked that we are doing this – no-one expected us to do it [before a full merger].

“But the swimmers are very excited and all the feedback is positive. We have strength in depth and both clubs fill each other’s gaps very well.

“Our first goal is to secure second place and push Plymouth in the West, then challenge the best in the national A final.”

All three teams are being selected on the basis of individual rankings with an element of coaches’ discretion to take account of times that may be out of date.

Plans are afoot for each team to train together twice next week for the purpose of team-bonding and to practise relay takeovers with new team-mates.

White hats with one blue and one red stripe have been ordered to reflect the colours of both clubs and Dolphins will wear their blue rather than their red tracksuits to be in tune with Ferndown’s all-blue kit.

Both clubs held question-and-answer sessions with swimmers and parents on Saturday, when they also collected signatures for registration.

While the A and C teams will undoubtedly be stronger, there are lingering doubts about the prospects of the B team, which may be weakened by the creaming-off of the best swimmers from both clubs.

Worst case scenario is for the B team to be relegated and the full merger not to go ahead – in which case Ferndown Otters would find themselves out of the top division for the first time since 1983.

However, the 11th hour withdrawal of Pembrokeshire Aces has reduced the Premier Division from 18 to 17 teams so they would have to finish rock bottom to suffer such a fate.

The squads will be without European youth Olympic champion Amelia Maughan, who ironically will be making her debut for Millfield against the B team.

However, national finalists Tom Mules, 13, whose South Dorset club have withdrawn from the league, and Northampton’s Jack Johnson, 18, a fresher at Bournemouth University, have joined the squad.

The decision to field merged teams came in the same week that the league – sponsored by Speedo for 25 years – announced a three-year deal with rival manufacturers Arena.