NEW Reading Abbey head coach Luke Harding is hoping to 'take the players to the next level' after replacing Fungai Mutepfa at Rose Hill, writes Richard Ashton.

The former backs guru's reign got off to a terrible start as they were stunned 23-5 by Southern Counties North relegation favourites Gosford All Blacks on Saturday, but he told the Chronicle: "I’m really pleased and over-the-moon to be offered the opportunity to work with these players. I’m really looking forward to taking them to the next level."

Yet it was an inauspicious start on a miserable afternoon against the Oxfordshire strugglers, the visitors 6-0 up early on courtesy of two Tim Ellis penalties.

An Arron Ross try cut the gap, but that was as good as it got for Abbey as Dan Hughes replied to put Gosford 11-5 up at the break.

The home side dominated possession and territory in the second half, but two interception tries from All Blacks fly half Harry Sutton ensured a miserable start for Harding.

However, Harding remained upbeat, stating: "I thought in passages we played well – our defence was particularly strong – but if we butcher three, four, five opportunities and let them have two intercept passes we’re not going to win games of rugby.

"I thought the commitment from the players was there, but we’ve just got to be smarter in their 22.

"If we do that and use the ball in a smart way in terms of tempo, then we will get success.

"There’s an atmosphere building that the players will have the licence to express themselves on the field."

It has been a hugely disappointing campaign for Abbey, who were relegated from South West One East last season, a combination of injuries and unavailability leading to their seventh-place standing in the current table.

Yet Harding believes he can turn things round, starting with a change of emphasis in preparation.

He revealed: "The short-term goal for this season is to make training fun, and to challenge them. A big focus will be on scoring tries. We need to put the players in scenarios under pressure where they can learn, and then in games when they’re under pressure, we can be more clinical with how we attack.

"I’m a big fan of trying to make the atmosphere one where players are challenged and can make mistakes in training, and then hopefully by making those mistakes they can put them right on the field."

He continued: "I want to get everyone back really enjoying their rugby.

"There’s been a really nice buzz, and we’ll tweak things in training.

"We’ll make Tuesdays more an ‘Abbey night’ where we get more players down to build the 1sts, 2nds, 3rts and 4ths together, because when we have injuries we have to dip into the other sides.

"Availability is an issue as they are voluntary players. We need to make sure the 2nds are on the same wavelength as the 1sts.

"It’s not going to happen overnight, but looking to next season, hopefully we can be in a nice, more positive place."

Abbey have a week off before they face back-to-back derbies against High Wycombe and Reading – two of Harding's former clubs – and he is relishing the chance to get on a winning run.

He commented: "High Wycombe will be very similar to Gosford. They’ll dog out the game and fight till the very last minute and take their opportunities, so we’ve got to be smart in how we play.

"We owe Reading one. If we can put the line speed like we have against Gosford and tweak a couple of things in attack, we will get a performance."