A RETURN to National Two South offers Bournemouth a raft of challenges and opportunities in equal measure.

After an emphatic campaign securing the South West Premier title by a handsome 27 points, the Chapel Gate outfit on Saturday launch their campaign in the fourth tier of English rugby at Taunton (3pm).

While a handful of the Lions squad provide much-needed experience, many of the group are getting ready to take a step into the relative unknown.

And it will also test Croker at a level he is yet to experience as a head coach, however, there appears to be no trepidation heading into the trip to Somerset.

Croker told the Daily Echo: “I can’t wait to get started. It is a huge challenge.

“Both (coach) Jon Sanchez and I are incredibly excited.

“This season is nothing but an opportunity. I genuinely believe we have got a team that can compete at the level. I genuinely believe we have got enough about us, a good enough game plan and enough talent for us to be very competitive both home and away.

“If you look at history, it would say the South West teams struggle in their first season and that is something we are obviously mindful of because these stats don’t just rear their head for no reason but by the same token we are still blessed to have the strength and depth in our second team from last season.

“I still believe we have two very good players in every position and there is going to be some real young talent that is going to emerge this season once we get up to speed with the physicality.

He added: “The one slight cautionary note is we do face an incredibly tough start.

“The top two sides from National Two South went up last season and we play the third, fourth and fifth sides in the first month. We play Taunton who finished fifth, we then play Worthing who finished mid-table, we then play Henley who finished fourth and then Tonbridge who finished third.

“We have a really tough start but if we can come through that first month knowing our game is in good shape and knowing we have a springboard and knowing we are in a good position where we can put good sides under the cosh for large periods of the game, then the season bodes well.”

Lions have lost Joe Tarrant, Jack Hennings, Ben Allman and Adam Davis (all retired) from their title-winning team, while Karim Lynch has joined Ampthill.

The prospect of the task at hand can be revealed in summer recruitment among the National Two South sides.

Croker bolstered his ranks with backs Richard Galloway and Dylan Baptista and forwards George Cotterell, James Griffiths, Bob Heath and Sam Knott. Meanwhile, Saturday’s opponents have signed former Exeter Chiefs winger Jack Arnott, former Cornish Pirates skipper Dan Lee and former All Black Julian Salvi.

“There I am delighted with the signings we have coming in but I am signing them from Maidenhead and Bracknell and they are signing them from Leicester,” said Croker.

“We have to apply a little bit of perspective to it but I am really confident with the squad. You can sign two or three top players but if they pick up injuries it is what have you got beneath it?

“That is where I feel blessed in that I feel we have a squad that can compete, even if we picked up two or three injuries in a position. There is usually somebody ready to step up.”

Discussing the challenge he faces in his role, Croker said: “From a coaching perspective, coming up with a team strategy and a philosophy is one part of it. You want to try and create an environment and methodology which the players can thrive in but the most exciting times for me are when a player comes to you and says ‘thank you ever so much, I feel a better player now than when I started’.

“You look at Harry Leadbitter and Ben Russell last season. Those guys improved beyond recognition over a nine-month period. This season it has to be our focus but we have not got to do it with one or two, we have to try to do it with an entire squad.

“Everything this season is geared around the coaches coaching rugby as opposed to team shape and game plans.”