Hartpury topped off an uplifting and occasionally emotional period with an encouraging victory over Yorkshire Carnegie last Friday night, at the Gillman’s Ground.
The week had started with the majority of the first team squad, plus a number of BUCS players, going under the clippers for a Head Shave in order to raise money for last season’s club captain, Rhys Oakley – who is being treated for testicular cancer – and the specialist local charity “It’s in the Bag”.
Their efforts, along with further fund-raising at last Friday’s match, have produced close to £10,000 – a target which the club hope to pass in the next few days.
“I’m very proud of the effort that everyone has put in to help Rhys and his family,” said Director of Rugby, John Barnes.
“The sports community at Hartpury has come together with the rugby world to raise this fantastic amount of money. We will continue to support Rhys and (wife) Alex through his recovery.”
Events on the field were just as gratifying, with Hartpury showing signs of putting behind them a vulnerability when trying to defend narrow leads in tight games.
“I was very happy with the opening day win against Yorkshire,” said Barnes.
“I wouldn’t say that it was the best performance we have put in, in terms of our attack and ball-retention, but I was immensely pleased with our defence and our work rate.
There were some very strong individual performances, especially from the new players in the squad.
Ex-student, Luke Cozens, did what we were looking for and controlled the game with his boot, as well as being flawless off the tee. This will be a crucial area of improvement for us this year.”
However, it wasn’t only the in-coming players who drew praise from Barnes. The return of a fit-gain and rejuvenated Mat Gilbert (pictured, after scoring) – who missed the final four months of last season – was like having another quality addition to the squad.
“Mat put in a masterclass in turnover play, with four steals on the night, in his return to the side after a long absence. He also ran a great line in support to get his try. It was a very happy four points gained.”
Another Yorkshire opponent lie in wait for the Red & Blacks this weekend, as the squad head north to tackle Doncaster Knights at Castle Park.
These two clubs fought out a couple of hugely entertaining encounters last season, with a Harry Randall-inspired Hartpury snatching a thrilling 29-27 home win, before going down 48-38 in the return fixture. The latter game contained no few than 14 tries, six of them to the visitors.
The Knights started their new season with a tough trip to the highly-rated Cornish Pirates – 31-24 the final score line – but played well enough and were, perhaps, unlucky to come away from the Mennaye with only one point.
Hartpury prepare for the game with a question mark over the availability of tight-head, Rupert Harden, who was forced off in the first quarter last Friday with an ankle injury. It also seems that injured backs, Mike Wilcox and Steve Leonard, are more likely to feature in the following week’s match, at home to Cornish Pirates.
Barnes, for one, is under no illusion about the size of the task this weekend. “Doncaster will be a tough trip. They are a club that regularly feature towards the top of the league and, with a reasonably settled squad, they represent an immense challenge for us.
Having said that, if we can build on last week’s performance, we should have a chance of upsetting the predictions once again.”
Saturday’s match will kick off at 2.30pm.