The challenge, as Championship matches go, could hardly be bigger as we travel to face the three-time European and five-time Premiership champions, Saracens.
We all know why Saracens are playing their rugby in the Championship this season. Irrespective of that, they will be determined to make a quick Premiership return and – with a stack of former, current and future British Lions at their disposal – it is no surprise to find that their play-off place is already assured.
An opening day defeat at the Cornish Pirates was quickly put behind them and a convincing victory over their confirmed play-off opponents, Ealing, has underlined that only a shock, in the two-legged final, will prevent them meeting their objective.
Semi-professional Hartpury, by contrast, are hardly in ideal shape coming into this one, having leaked 50 or more in the last two matches and not having won since Round 5 – a last squeak victory over then bottom club Nottingham.
Scoring points has not been a problem for the Red & Blacks – we are the highest scorers outside the top four and have collected more than 3rd placed Doncaster – but the ‘points against’ total is the highest in the league.
More worrying was the nature of the defeat against visitors Jersey Reds last weekend, when the team were almost meek in their acceptance of the outcome from a very early stage in the proceedings.
“That was a massively disappointing performance,” said player-coach Luke Eves, whose introduction after the break at least helped to produce a slightly improved second-half display.
Eves – a former Premiership centre for both Bristol and Newcastle and one of the few Hartpury players who has any experience of regularly facing the calibre of opposition that we could encounter on Saturday – has been with Hartpury since the beginning of 2016 and now coaches our university players as well as turning out in the Championship.
“As a player, the absolute minimum requirements – week in, week out – are hard work and physicality. Yes, there’s a lot more to rugby than that, but if you can’t do anything else you can, at least, try hard.”
“Those are the non-negotiables but, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve come up short in the last few games.”
“We could have spent hours watching Saracens showing us what we already know – that they are a top-quality team with world-class players at their disposal.”
“We’ve preferred to focus on ourselves this week,” he said.
“We’ve got to go out there and do those basics to the best of our ability. Work hard, front up physically and look after the ball when we have it. We can’t afford to over-play – we know how good Saracens defence is.”
“Yes, it’s going to be tough, but what we’re looking for this week is character.”
“It’s our last game of the season and the last chance to go out of this with something we can be proud of. Whether the lads are here because they want to move on to a higher level or whether they’re playing purely for the love of it, the message is the same. It’s time to show what we can do and what it means to do it well.”
Eves has got a busy weekend ahead, as the Hartpury University 1st XV travel to play Exeter University on Friday afternoon. After a successful ‘training game’ with Oxford University last week, the match at Exeter will mean a lot to the boys, particularly those graduating this year, who have been robbed of more than a full season of competitive university rugby by the pandemic. We wish them well for what is always a tough fixture.
Hartpury do have a couple of new injury concerns in the lead-up to Saturday’s game at the Stonex Stadium and will name the final 23 on Friday at noon.