Hartpury RFC will make club history on Sunday when the boys in red and black run out against Bristol, at Ashton Gate, in what is unquestionably their biggest fixture since entering league rugby in 2004.
Director of Rugby, John Barnes, appreciates the importance of the event, not just for the current squad but also for all of the players, coaches and staff who have been involved with the club over the years.
“There is a bit more pressure this week,” Barnes said.
“It’s our first ever Championship game, we are going to be live on Sky TV for the first time in Hartpury history and it’s the first game of a new season, against a big local club – it’s definitely a massive occasion.
It is hugely important that we give a good account of ourselves, not just for those of us that are involved this season, but for all the players, coaches and other staff that have gone before us.
A lot of people have worked so hard over the past few years to get Hartpury where we are now.
Playing in the Championship is very much a tribute to those guys – we are the lucky ones to be playing on live TV, but we are going to be out there doing our best for everyone connected with Hartpury rugby.
Of course we are excited. Maybe also a little apprehensive about what we are going into and the size of the challenge ahead, but we have worked really hard in pre-season to make sure that we are ready to compete.
It’s another step up, but Hartpury have had to step up many times since we entered the leagues. It’s all about how we meet those new challenges, starting with Bristol on Sunday.”
The immediate obstacle could hardly be greater. Bristol, despite their relegation last season, have all the hallmarks of a Premiership rugby club and the high-profile arrival of new Head Coach Pat Lam, as well as players such as All Black Steven Luatua and 31-times capped Ireland fly half Ian Madigan, are a strong statement that they do not intend to linger long in the second tier.
“Bristol have clearly got a very good squad including three recent ex-Hartpury guys in Mat Protheroe, Joe Batley and Dan Thomas – all excellent players who we know very well. Wouldn’t it be great to see them out on the pitch against Hartpury in the Championship?” said Barnes.
“Their selection is going to be very interesting. Although they haven’t won in pre-season, they’ve gone well against two Premiership and two Pro14 teams, so now they’ve got to find their best XV to play Hartpury.”
Apart from that trio of young players, who all made the short trip down the M5 from Gloucester Rugby over the summer, there are many close connections on either side in this local spat, which only adds further spice to the occasion.
And, despite some of the experience in the Hartpury squad, the crowd could also be a big factor on Sunday. Last season, Bristol were averaging around 13,500 at Ashton Gate and will be hoping that the new signings, plus all the optimism that a new season brings, will bring in a bumper gate for this match.
Hartpury have had a taste of the big stadium experience recently, with trips to both Worcester Warriors and Kingsholm last Friday, a game in which they gave a good account of themselves against the Cherry & Whites and a performance which drew qualified praise from Barnes.
“I thought in the first half we gave them too much field position, often through penalties, which meant that they were attacking us from close range. Having said that, we scored some good tries of our own and managed to stay in the game through the first half against a strong Gloucester starting fifteen.
After the break we started to get on top, as Gloucester made quite a few changes, and we probably should have held on to the lead.
Credit to Gloucester for that final try – a great break from Henry Trinder and good support from Callum Braley, both ex-Hartpury players – but it was a bit disappointing to not win the game.
We certainly learnt a lot. That first half was a really good challenge for us and that is what we will take most of the positives from.
Unfortunately we lost Ed Sheldon (pictured) to a pulled hamstring right at the end of the game – literally the last play. It’s sad for him because he’s a Bristol boy and he’s had an excellent pre-season. He’s scored some great tries for us already, but that’s a part of the game.
We’ve actually been lucky to come through pre-season with very little in the way of serious injury and we are generally in good shape.”
Sunday’s game will kick off at 3pm.