Only a few days remain before we kick off what promises to be a hugely competitive National League 1 season.
Having finished fifth and then second in their two campaigns as this level to date, Hartpury will feel that they should again be involved in the upper reaches of the table, but there is no question that a number of sides have strengthened from last year and that nothing can be taken for granted.
Before looking ahead to the specifics of this Saturday’s opening game at home to Blackheath (2.30pm), it is worth considering how the season overall might unfold.
There is another ‘big beast’ in the league this year as Birmingham Moseley arrive from the Championship. As is often the case after relegation, there were a number of exits from the Midlands club in the Spring, but a recent plethora of signings appears to have reversed that trend.
Moseley (our most local opponents this season – around 50 miles as the crow flies) are one of many National One clubs that could field Hartpury alumni against their former college during the course of the season, with winger Mark Harrison having signed most recently.
Moseley will be reviving a traditional rivalry with Coventry RFC who have themselves been very busy in the off-season. New coach Rowland Winter, having led Cambridge back into the division, wasted little time in making changes at an outfit who clearly under-performed last time round and much is expected of Coventry this year.
Another team which arguably under-achieved last year was Rosslyn Park, although now seemingly more settled under a renewed coaching set-up the Roehampton outfit can be expected to be at the forefront of a strong London challenge that will also feature our opening opponents Blackheath. Both sides have caused Hartpury problems in the past two seasons and Blackheath, in particular, have produced some eye-catching wins in pre-season.
The evidence from last season suggests that Ampthill will again be a force to be reckoned with, albeit no longer a ‘surprise package’, having continued to strengthen over the summer. DMP were hamstrung by their self-imposed exile from the Northern Echo Arena during RWC 2015 last term, a number of early away defeats leaving them with too much to do to get back into the promotion fight. There have been plenty of ins and outs over the summer, but nothing to suggest that they will be anything other than a real threat this time around.
Plymouth Albion’s dismissal of Graham Dawe and last-minute decision to call in the administrators at the end of 2015/16 prompted another outflow of players, in some ways mirroring the predicament that they found themselves in twelve months earlier following relegation. However, they have retained a core from the side that was so strong from last December onwards and an influx of Chiefs means that they will again be a force to be reckoned with.
The only side to do the double over Hartpury last season, Albion will be our visitors in Week 2.*
Time will tell what sort of impact the three new boys coming up from National Two will have, although all have relatively recent experience at this level, with Macclesfield and Old Albanians bouncing straight back from relegation in 2015, while Cambridge were last here in 2013. One assumes that all three would be happy to consolidate.
Fylde are a tough side to call. From being strong in 2014-15 they were the very model of inconsistency last season and will be keen to re-establish themselves within the leading pack. Blaydon will continue to be a very difficult place to visit and they will be hoping to put a little more daylight between themselves and the trapdoor than was occasionally the case last year.
Ionians also did just enough to keep their noses in front of Wharfedale at the bottom while Loughborough, although never looking in extreme danger, were probably too close for comfort. Students will be hoping to have recruited well this time around and, like ourselves, will also have to contend with a more demanding BUCS fixture list in the forthcoming campaign.
2016-17 promises to be an intriguing and exciting season in which as many as seven or eight teams will start with some hope of clinching that top spot come the end of April. Clubs will be scrapping for every point which means that our opening game on Saturday is already a blockbuster!
See you there…
* You can find our full 2016/17 fixture list HERE