DANNY BROWN expects this season’s National One promotion battle to be much closer than in either of the last two years, and despite having to battle against an early-season injury crisis, the Darlington Mowden Park boss fully expects his side to be in the mix.

Mowden kick-off the new campaign at Bishop’s Stortfort this afternoon, but are without 14 senior players who are unavailable because of injury.

Their skipper, Ollie Hodgson, faces a two-and-a-half month lay-off as he requires surgery to repair a broken finger, and Brown admits the mounting casualty list has made for a sour end to an otherwise successful pre-season programme.

Nevertheless, the director of rugby is still targeting a place in the Championship, with Mowden having finished as runners-up behind runaway champions Coventry last season.

“Our ambition is to equal or better what we achieved last year,” said Brown. “I think that’ll be tough because I think the league is going to be a lot more difficult this year.

“A lot of teams look like they’re having to have a real go at it this year, and I don’t think you’ll see the kind of runaway winners that we’ve seen in the last two seasons with Coventry and Hartpury.

“It looks like it’s going to be much more of a battle this season. The teams that have come up look strong, and it looks like a really competitive division.”

Last year, Brown admitted that had Mowden been promoted, their elevation to the Championship might have come at too early a stage of the club’s development.

Twelve months on, and with the core of the squad having been at the club for at least a couple of years, he feels Mowden are much better-placed to handle the step up to English rugby’s second tier.

“I think we’re getting somewhere near,” he said. “On and off the field, I think we’re getting to a position where we could sustain Championship rugby, and that’s where we want to be.

“The ambition is to get this club into the Championship in the next few years, but that’s not putting pressure on anyone by saying we have to do it this season.

“That’s not how we operate, and promotion isn’t the be all and end all of what we want to achieve. That said though, we want to do better than we did last season if possible, and if we’re going to do that, we’re going to have to be challenging at the top of the table.”

The injury problems of the last couple of weeks have forced Brown to name some youngsters in today’s starting line-up, with the absence of some experienced names having been exacerbated by the unavailability of the club’s dual-registered players.

Mowden will be able to call upon four or five Newcastle Falcons players later in the campaign, but for now, Brown will have to make do with the members of his squad that have come through pre-season unscathed.

“Up until three or four weeks ago, I’d have said that pre-season was going perfectly,” he said. “We didn’t have to make a load of changes, but we’d managed to bring in four or five new players to bolster the squad.

“Since then though, it’s been one thing after another. We’ve had players dropping down here, there and everywhere, and unfortunately some of the injuries are fairly long-term.

“That’s obviously not the way you want to start the season, but we’re not going to make excuses or start bleating on. It’s an opportunity for some of the guys to come in, and we’re ready to go.

“We probably haven’t got the squad depth we would ideally have wanted, but we’re still able to put out a strong team. Let’s see how they go.”