WILL Croker believes stalwart Sam Hardcastle is “in the shape of his life” and insists Bournemouth’s experienced charges will have a key part to play this season.

Lions tomorrow launch their return to National Two South with a trip to Taunton Titans (3pm), who are fancied to challenge for promotion.

The Chapel Gate side head to Somerset aiming to extend to 15 matches their unbeaten run in league action after a dominant second half of the 2018-19 campaign saw them romp to the South West Premier title.

And head coach Croker was boosted in the summer by scrum-half Hardcastle’s decision to extend his illustrious career into another season.

Discussing the 37-year-old’s role ahead of Bournemouth’s curtain raiser at Towergate Stadium, Croker told the Daily Echo: “He has been such an amazing servant for us.

“His young family are putting more and more pressure on his time as you would imagine but the guy is in the shape of his life.

“He had one of the best seasons he has ever had and he is looking forward to testing himself again. Whether he will get quite the game time he got last season I do not know because it is a far more physical league, there are more games and we might have to manage the games he plays.

“The big long away trips are probably going to put pressure on him but everybody in the squad understands it and everybody in the squad knows that we have got back up that can do a great job.”

While Croker expects talents to come through the ranks, he admits there will be times when veterans like Hardcastle and Alan Manning will prove invaluable.

“This league is very competitive from top to bottom and there will be games that are close,” said Croker.

“It is how you perform when things are close. We can have all these young thrusters that are going to put pressure on right the way through the season but when the going gets really tough you are going to need these old boys just to pull it in and say ‘we are going to stick it up our jumper and we are going to play in the right areas of the pitch'.

“In this league a win by a point can be just as important as running away with it because any team can beat anyone on any day.

“We have got guys who have played at this level before. We just need them to put their heads above the parapet and when it is really getting mad around them, they need to keep everything calm.”

Taunton finished fifth in the fourth tier of English rugby in 2018-19, 21 points off the play-off spot.

The opening fixture forms the first chapter in a tough start for Lions, with Henley Hawks and Tonbridge Juddians, who both finished above Taunton last season, to come before October.

However, after discovering a winning formula to earn promotion, Croker said individual improvement had been the priority for his coaching team.

“One of the things we focused on this summer was our game plan and our strategy is clearly right or we would not have won the league by the margin we did,” said Croker.

“What we now need to do is focus on the players we have got.

“I can’t go out and sign six or seven ex-pros, so our focus this whole summer has been how do we make the players we have 10 per cent better?

“If we can do that across the squad, improve their skillsets, speed up their awareness and thought process, make their fitness so much higher that their decision making under pressure is not tested, then we can challenge against any team in the league.”