Sunday’s 43-41 try-fest at Ampthill may have been a thriller for the casual observer, but it brought little joy for Hartpury Head Coach, Mark Cornwell.
“I’ve already referred to it as ‘Billy Smart’s Circus*,’” he said. “There just seemed to be lots of people running around, not knowing what was meant to be going on. Whatever it was, it wasn’t rugby.”
In a nutshell, Hartpury raced into an early lead – 21-5 within 13 minutes – got pegged back to 24-19 and then stretched away again, with tries either side of half-time. The remaining 30 minutes of the game saw the lead dwindle, until they were overtaken by a late Louis Grimoldby penalty.
Plenty of action, but a day on which defence seemed to be optional for both sides.
“The majority of people that I’ve spoken with, who come from outside the game, were entertained,” said Cornwell. “They tell me ‘it was fantastic to watch, I was on the edge my seat…’ But when I spoke with (Ampthill Head Coach) Paul Turner after the match, we both agreed that it was a complete mess of a game of rugby. It’s hard to watch as a coach, because that’s just not what you spend all week preparing for.”
“OK, there was a lot of good stuff around our attack shape, but at times – and again the Ampthill coaches would agree – we scored way too easily.”
“In the first minute, there was some clever work by Robbie Smith, but then Luke Eves runs in untouched. Then we score from a charged down kick off their scrum-half and for our third try I don’t even know where the Ampthill defence was. A pass out into midfield and a good bounce and we score. Way too easy.”
“What that does for the players, perhaps subconsciously, is that they suddenly think that they can score from anywhere and the game plan goes out of the window. Then players start making silly decisions – that leads to a lot of turnover ball and then Ampthill start scoring tries.”
“For me, this is the effect of having no relegation in rugby. We’re already seeing it in the Premiership this season and if they go ahead with ring-fencing in the long term this could just become the norm. You can see a disregard for defending your line like it really matters. We can see mismatches in lots of games but if teams concede points, somehow it doesn’t really matter.”
“From the sidelines we could sense what was going on at Ampthill and what was going to happen. Sure, the sun was out and it was a good day for running the ball, but there wasn’t that last ditch effort or commitment to stop people scoring.”
“It’s hard to watch as a coach.”
Like Ampthill, this Saturday’s visitors, Coventry, are another club that Hartpury have spent a fair amount of time around in the past few seasons, including all three years of the stay in National 1 and, now, three of the four campaigns spent in the Championship to date.
The results in the National League strongly favoured the Red & Blacks, the only defeat coming in the first ever meeting back on a very wet day in the autumn of 2014, and the sequence ending in a resounding 50-19 Hartpury win, in which Jake Polledri showed exactly why he was going to become a star for both Gloucester and Italy in the seasons ahead.
In the Championship era, the results have so far gone the way of the home team in every instance, although it took a late Tiff Eden penalty to preserve that record when Coventry visited the Alpas last season.
The Midlanders come into the game off their bye week, with three wins and two losses from their five matches so far – those defeats coming at the hands of the current top two, Ealing and Doncaster.
Hartpury will want to retain some of the impressive attacking traits that they demonstrated at Ampthill, while putting behind them the frailties that crept into their second half display.
“Again, we’re looking for a reaction from the players,” said Cornwell.
“This is what we’ve focused on in our training and our analysis this week. The players have to realise that there’s more than playing on one side of the ball and that if there is any lack of commitment in our defence then there will be consequences in the outcome of matches.”
“It’s great to go out and attack well and score more than 40 points, but there has to be buy-in on the flip side of that.”
“We’ll make some changes. We’ve trained very hard – getting the players to work under fatigue and figure out how we are going to plug those holes.”
“In the longer term, it probably shows us that we need a little bit more experience in the squad. OK, we’ve got two or three players that offer that, but essentially we’ve got a squad of young men who are learning their way in the game.”
“Yes, they’ve got ability – that’s why they’re here – but game planning and game management are often skills that come along a little later. Of course they want to express themselves, but it’s about getting the balance right.”
“Coventry base their game around power. Good scrum, big line-out drive – they don’t look to be any different this year. They’ve had a decent start with three wins from five. It’s probably been difficult for them without that big crowd that they get at home, which I’m sure gives them a lift.”
“We’re expecting them to be very direct and come after us at the set piece. Yes, we’ve had our wins against them but we’ve also come unstuck a couple of times.
“It’s a game that we are looking to win, but we understand their threat. They’re one of the top try-scores through the drive and, looking at the way which we defended against Ampthill, that’s no doubt an area where they’ll be coming for us.”
There are a couple of fitness doubts ahead of the weekend. Back row forwards Max Clementson and Will Safe are both question marks, while try-scorer Jack Johnson is definitely out with a sore achilles tendon.
On the flip side, there are a number of players returning. Luke Stratford and Aled Ward are both back in contention for the Coventry game and there could be a first start of the season for winger Sam Goatley, who has missed all of the first six rounds through injury.
*Other circuses are available.