OEs make the long trip to Durham this Saturday for a difficult assignment at Darlington Mowden Park, looking to return to winning ways after the disappointing 12-11 derby defeat to Blackheath in the final game before the festive break.
Despite the loss, Elthamians stayed at the top of National One heading into 2019. But the division is so tight with the top five clubs separated by just four points, that Howard admits a victory is imperative on Saturday.
“All the players have had a much needed couple of weeks off to enjoy Christmas and New Year so the Blackheath game is very much forgotten and we now focus purely on Darlington,” he said. “The Blackheath result was disappointing but we are still top of the league so we have to take that disappointment, stick together and come back stronger from it.”
He continued: “The aim is to win the league and the way to do that is by winning every week. If you slip up in this league you can find yourself going from first to fourth in a couple of weeks so it's vital we get the win on Saturday.”
Darlington have endured a mixed campaign so far and currently lie 10th with seven wins from 16 games. When the two sides met at College Meadow in October, Elthamian ended Darlington's unbeaten start to the season with an impressive 31-22 victory which was built on another suffocating defensive performance.
However, on OEs’ only previous visit to the impressive Darlington Arena back in October they were well beaten 36-21 and Howard is well aware of the dangers posed by Saturday's opponents.
“I sound like a broken record but every team in this league have shown they are capable of beating any other,” Howard said, “and Darlington are no different. As I always say, however, if we get our game right in attack and defence and have a strong set piece I am confident we can come away with the win.
“When we haven't done that this year we have lost and the same will happen on Saturday if we don't get our play right.”
He added: “A big pitch definitely helps the way we like to play. I think playing at a massive stadium with supporters on only one side is a bit strange the first time you play there, but having done it last year the boys will be used to it.”
The match also sees a personal landmark for Elthamians prop Stef North who makes his 50th appearance in an OEs shirt since arriving at the club three seasons ago.
“Myself and all of the management team have the utmost respect for Stef and the work he put in over the summer and continues to put in,” Howard said. “He has fought hard for his place and his performances this season have warranted his selection.”
Updated 08:09 - 7 Jan 2019 by Jon Edwards