Hartpury will reach the half-way mark of the current Greene King IPA Championship season with this week’s visit to a club that has been a second-tier powerhouse in recent years, Ealing Trailfinders.
They do so in 7th place in the table and with four wins plus a number of bonus points under their belts – a far cry from the situation 12 months ago, when the club were deep into a long losing streak, ravaged by injury and points adrift at the foot of the league.
Saturday’s win over Coventry was the fourth of the season and the circumstances surrounding it – a narrow victory, clinched by a last-gasp penalty from Tiff Eden – will feel like karma to group which had lost all of their previous three matches by tight margins, including having victory snatched away by a late Jersey Reds try, in controversial circumstances at the Alpas Arena.
“Obviously, we were very happy to get the win,” said Director of Rugby, John Barnes.
“We made hard work of it towards the end, but I was pleased that we hung in there to get one more scoring opportunity. Tiff Eden showed great composure to slot the winning kick.”
“We’ve had a few tight games recently without getting the win, so we’re happy to get one on the board before a tough two weeks, against Ealing and Falcons.”
All four Hartpury victories so far have come at home and another important step forward for the Red & Blacks would be to start picking up more points on the road. Last season saw just one away victory (another late one, at Jersey) and in 2017-18 there were two – at London Scottish, courtesy of a last-minute Mike Wilcox try, and at bottom club Rotherham Titans.
However, there are easier places to pick up points than Vallis Way, home of the Trailfinders. The West London club have lost once at home this season – to unbeaten league leaders Newcastle Falcons – although they were held to a highly creditable draw by last weekend’s victims, Coventry. Beyond those results they have collected 77 points at home against Ampthill, as well as 50 against Jersey and with 349 points from 10 games are the top scorers in the Championship thus far.
Last season, Hartpury’s visit to the Trailfinders came a month later in the calendar and was at the point where the Red & Blacks – finally benefiting from returning players and partner support – were beginning to turn around their fortunes.
Hartpury actually led at half time, thanks to a sniping Ben Vellacott try (pictured, courtesy of LNC Images – he subsequently added a second), before a late Pete Lydon kick made the final score 22-14 to Ealing, denying Hartpury even the comfort of a richly-deserved bonus point. It is the closest that Hartpury have come to toppling Trailfinders in a number of meetings in both the Championship and National 1, although we did collect a 4-try bonus point in high-scoring defeat in 2017-18.
“Ealing, as always, will be extremely difficult,” said Barnes.
“They have been unfortunate to be consistently runners-up in the Championship – to the incoming Premiership sides – and they are a very well-coached, full time set up, which makes this a big challenge for our players.”
“We pushed them close at Vallis Way last year and are hoping to do the same again.”
“Our defence has been outstanding at times this year, but this game will really test us in that area.”
Defensively, Hartpury are having a strong season – with 183 points conceded in 10 matches being the fourth-best record in the league, and with 45 of those coming in the away defeat at the Falcons.
Club skipper and scrum-half, Luke Carter, as well as experienced forward Iain Grieve, will be returning to a former employer this weekend. The Trailfinders side could feature Hartpury alumni Harry Casson – who appeared once for the Red & Blacks on loan last season, as well as numerous times throughout the rise from regional rugby – as well as centre Jack Tovey, who also featured a number of times, on loan from former club Bristol Bears, particularly during the all-important run-in, last term.
Former Hartpury students Ewan Fenley and Reuben Norville are currently continuing their development in the Trailfinders Academy.
Conversely, full-back George Simpson is on a season-long loan at Hartpury, from Ealing, and therefore will not be available for selection this weekend. Beyond that – and long-term injuries to Dan Koster and Rupert Harden, with the latter unlikely to play at all this season – Barnes and Head Coach, Mark Cornwell, have a healthy roster from which to select their squad.
Saturday’s match kicks off at 3pm and Hartpury will announce the match-day 23 on Friday.