Hartpury will renew a rivalry of a relatively recent vintage this Saturday, when we welcome Coventry RFC to the Gillman’s Ground for the fourth time in five seasons.
Coventry followed Hartpury up into the Championship at the end of the last campaign – having conquered almost all in National 1 – returning to a level that they last graced twelve years ago.
The Midlanders are, of course, one of the traditional power-houses of English club rugby although, like many of a similar stature, they were to find life challenging during the transition to professionalism either side of the millennium.
Happily, they now appear to be firmly on their way back and have made a convincing start to life in Tier 2, having taken the scalps of both Jersey Reds and Bedford Blues in their opening two home fixtures.
Coventry did also pick up a victory on their first ever visit to Hartpury, back in 2014, as the Red & Blacks let a lead slip through their fingers on a wet and difficult day (sound familiar?) but, since then, all the honours have gone to the Gloucestershire side, who subsequently picked up five successive wins in the fixture, home and away.
All of the away matches were nail-biters, but there was no denying the quality of the Hartpury performance when the two sides last met on their own patch, with the exceptional unbeaten promotion team of 2016-17 running out as 50-19 winners (pictured, Jake Polledri on the charge).
There is no expectation of anything similar on Saturday, as Director of Rugby, John Barnes, is quick to concede.
“Coventry are certain to be a very stern test,” he said.
“They have adapted quickly to the Championship and – with some very good recruitment of experienced players over the summer – we expect them to go well this year.”
Among those recruits are James Voss – a Hartpury graduate who played both BUCS and National League rugby here – and James Gibbons, who played for Hartpury’s successful under-18 side in the AASE competition, before featuring for ‘the RFC’ in the National League whilst in the Gloucester Academy.
Andy Bulumakau, who spent a short time here before signing for Doncaster, has also arrived at the Butts Arena, alongside former Gloucester hooker, Darren Dawidiuk, who played a number of Championship matches for Hartpury last season.
The club’s back-three resources include a further Hartpury graduate, Kwaku Asiedu, although better-known to locals may be Tongan international, David Halaifonua, who moved from Gloucester Rugby in the summer.
Coventry’s one defeat so far this season was away at Cornish Pirates, a side that Hartpury already know all too well.
In winning at the Gillman’s last weekend, the Cornish-men picked up their fifth straight victory over Barnes’ team in little more than a year, despite Hartpury having the better opening period, inspired by the return of centre, Steve Leonard.
“After an excellent start, we gifted Pirates three tries by missing two simple one-on-one tackles and throwing an interception, which Robin Wedlake finished well from 80 metres out,” said Barnes.
“To go in behind at half-time was disappointing, as I thought we had played some good rugby, but individual errors at this level are usually punished,” he said.
“Then, for the second week in succession, we started the second half poorly and Pirates capitalised with their bonus point try. That seemed to knock us back a bit and Pirates began to open up with some great running rugby.”
“They are a very good side – very well coached – and will be near the top again this year.”
“However, we should have competed better and stayed in the game for longer. It is individual errors that are costing us dear at the moment.”
“Steve Leonard will again be out on Saturday, with a hamstring strain sustained in the first half last week. Until then, he was playing exceptionally well and showed what we have been missing.”
The rest of the squad health is good, with no new injuries resulting from the Pirates game. The full match-day group will be named on Friday, at noon.
Saturday’s fixture kicks off at the usual time of 2.30pm.