Hartpury RFC boss, John Barnes, is optimistic ahead of a run of games which could give a clear indication of which level the club are likely to be playing their rugby at next season.
Hartpury, sitting bottom of the Championship after the recent defeat to London Irish, have had an extraordinarily tough batch of eight matches which has seen them play three fixtures against the Exiles, three against Bedford and two against the Cornish Pirates. All three clubs feature in the league’s top four.
However, excluding another visit to Penzance at the end of January, the next five games include four encounters with clubs who are somewhat closer to Hartpury in the table and all of whom are within catching distance, given the right results.
That sequence starts on Friday night when the Red & Blacks visit London Scottish at the Richmond Athletic Ground (7.45pm ko). It will be the first time that the clubs have met this season and represents the half-way mark of the current league campaign.
Hartpury will have fond memories of Scottish, as home and away victories last season played a large part in ensuring Championship survival. Indeed, it was following the hard-fought, if unspectacular, 14-11 victory at the Gillman’s Ground in March, that safety was mathematically assured.
The away fixture, played in October 2017, saw Hartpury grab the honours in another closely-contested game, when a Mike Wilcox try over-turned a Scottish lead in the dying seconds.
“Friday night will be a different challenge to the run of games that we’ve just had,” said Barnes. “The past two months have been very tough, as we’ve been playing exclusively against three of the best teams in the Championship.”
“We’ve competed well in some of those games and should probably have won at least two or three of them.”
“Now we’ve got a few matches against teams who are in our half of the table and – if we perform to the level that we know we are capable of – there’s no reason why we can’t start to pick up some wins and some league points.”
“That is going to be crucial, if we are going to stay up this year.”
“Scottish are coming off a tough game down at Cornish Pirates but, as we know only too well, that’s a hard place to go. We’ve had a good look at their recent matches but, like most teams, they’ve been mixing things up in the Cup competition.”
“They’ll fully understand the importance of this fixture. They are at home against the bottom club and they will be expecting to win. I’ve got no doubt that Dave Morris (London Scottish DoR) will have them fully fired-up for this one.”
Hartpury have yet to win away this season, but will be encouraged by the fact that only one of the London side’s three league wins have come at home, a commendable 27-24 result over the Jersey Reds, back in the sunny days of September.
The Scottish squad contains a couple of faces that will be familiar to Hartpury followers. Prop Jimmy Litchfield was involved in the university squad that won the BUCS title in 2014, while outside-half, Jacob Perry (pictured, vs London Scottish, last season), was at Hartpury until the end of last season, having pulled on the Red & Black in AASE, BUCS, National League and Championship rugby over several years of exceptional service.
After this weekend, Scottish themselves face a tough sequence of fixtures, with Jersey, Bedford, Ealing, Nottingham and London Irish all to come.
Hartpury, meanwhile, still have injuries to key players and this week’s England Under-20 training camp means that the likes of Aaron Hinkley, Tom Seabrook, Olly Adkins and Jack Reeves are all out of contention.
The 38-5 defeat to Irish two weeks ago, whilst not flattering on the scoreboard, was not a total wash-out according to Barnes.
“We’re never happy to lose – particularly by 30 points – but the things that we’d worked on during the week – stopping them up front and holding them in the drive – went ok.”
“It was other aspects of our game, particularly the kick chase, which cost us. Having said that, we were in the game until just before the break and it was their try late in the half that killed it for us.”
“In the second half we battled well and stopped them using their big, dominant pack. We can take a lot of positives from that and, if we can replicate that level of performance over the next few weeks, we can certainly pick up the results we are looking for.”