(Image – Joe Margetts scores against the Falcons in the previous Championship Cup meeting. LNC Images)
With nine rounds of Greene King IPA Championship rugby played – six in the league and three in the cup – it has come as a surprise to precisely nobody that Newcastle Falcons have established themselves as the clear favourites to win both trophies.
The ex-Premiership outfit have won all of their fixtures so far and, whilst they have yet to face their most likely challengers, Ealing Trailfinders, they are already averaging more than 40 points per game across both competitions.
None of which makes Hartpury’s task sound any easier this Friday night, as they travel to Kingston Park for what will be their third clash with the league leaders already this season.
Having treated the opening three rounds of the cup as, effectively, an extended pre-season, Hartpury have yet to collect any points in their four-team group, which also contains Jersey and Doncaster.
That approach has been somewhat vindicated, as a run of three wins in the past four games – it would have been four, were it not for a profligate performance at Ampthill – sees the Red & Blacks sitting in the relative comfort of mid-Championship, as cup rugby returns to centre stage for the next three weeks.
They now have to decide how to approach these fixtures. Zero points, currently, makes progression in the cup a tenuous objective, at best, so should key players be rested?
Alternatively, do they continue to put out their strongest group knowing that a continuation of their current decent form could provide major dividends when league action returns before Christmas?
The answer is probably somewhere in between, according to Head Coach, Mark Cornwell.
“We’ve had a good run recently, picking up 15 points from our past four matches and scoring plenty of tries in the process,” he said. “We’re now going back into a different competition – and up to Newcastle for the second time in six weeks – so, yes, we will be making some changes.”
“Having said that, I certainly wouldn’t be describing the team that we will be putting out as weakened or under-strength,” he continued.
“We have been pretty settled for the last few games in the Championship and there are some boys who have been there, training day in day out, who now need some proper game time. Players do get frustrated when they’re not getting a run in the side and that’s understandable. This is a chance for us to show faith in them and for those lads to show us what they’ve got.”
“We’re under no illusion about the size of the task on Friday. We’ve got to focus on what we’ve been working on and what we know we’ve doing well over the recent games.”
“We should also remember that we put in a good performance up there a few weeks ago. Three tries in last few minutes skewed the final result, but for 60-70 minutes we gave a good account of ourselves.”
Overall, Hartpury find themselves in much better shape than at a similar point in last year’s calendar, when they were deep into a winless streak that ran from late September until mid-February.
“Last season was very difficult,” said Cornwell. “Being in the middle of a run like that, it was tough to motivate myself, never mind the players!”
“We’re pleased with where we are right now. We’ve got some tough games to come against clubs at the top of the table, but if we manage to stay consistent in our performances you never know what we might be able to do.”
“We had to get maximum points against Yorkshire, which we did, and we also played really well to pick up the bonus point against Scottish.”
Friday is a somewhat unique occasion for Hartpury, in that the Championship Cup game will be preceded by a BUCS Super League fixture, between the university students’ first XV and Northumbria University.
The BUCS Super League competition builds towards a Twickenham play-off final in March of each season and Hartpury University are currently the only side to have lifted the trophy, having won all three finals to have been played since 2017.
Despite a less than perfect start to the current campaign – primarily the result of a very significant injury list – Hartpury ran up more than 50 points in their last outing, versus Swansea, and will be hopeful of continuing that form against Northumbria.
“It’s the first time that we’ve travelled together as a university club,” said Cornwell.
“The BUCS lads are looking forward to it and it should be a great occasion for them. They’ve had a tough season so far but they’ll be looking to do well against Northumbria, who have been through a number of changes themselves.”
“Hopefully there will be two good Hartpury performances to enjoy on Friday evening.”
The university fixture kicks off at 4pm, with the Championship Cup game following later, at 8pm. The Hartpury squad will be announced on Thursday at noon.