Picture courtesy of LNC Images.
With all due respect to Doncaster Knights and Jersey Reds – both of whom have registered recent wins against Hartpury – this Saturday represents the toughest test of the young season so far, when the Red & Blacks entertain the Newcastle Falcons.
Having had an outstanding Premiership season in 2017-18, in which they achieved their highest finish since winning the league in 1997-98, the Falcons then created something of a surprise – not in the way they would have aspired to – by getting relegated just a year later.
Their fate was confirmed at Kingsholm back in May and, since then, a number of the club’s high-profile players have elected to remain at Premiership level by changing club – some of them on loan. Despite those departures, Newcastle still have a squad that would be the envy of any Championship outfit.
Notwithstanding the demands of the Rugby World Cup, the Falcons have registered two wins from two in the Championship Cup competition, with a 21-8 opening day victory in a tricky trip to Jersey being followed by an emphatic 57-0 home win over the Knights last weekend.
Unsurprisingly, the Falcons can still field a team bristling with top-flight experience, as personified by much-capped former England fly half Toby Flood, but also with a host of promising younger players, such as Callum Chick, Adam Radwan and George Wacokecoke, all of whom have come up against Hartpury teams – be it college, university or RFC – over the past few years.
Head Coach, Mark Cornwell, is in no doubt about the task facing his charges on Saturday.
“The Falcons are showing, already, that they are going to be the team that everybody will want to test themselves against this season,” he said.
“They’re playing some very good stuff. They’ve got quality throughout the squad and they perform at a very high tempo without making the sort of mistakes that both we – and our opponents – have been making over the past couple of weeks.”
“They are a Premiership outfit playing in the Championship, it’s as simple as that.”
The mistakes that Cornwell is referring to, have punctuated Hartpury’s two Championship Cup games so far.
There is an extent to which this is understandable, with Hartpury largely using these three opening Cup fixtures as a prelude to the league season to come, but the frequency with which they have been occurring is still a source of concern to the coaching team at the ALPAS Arena, with the Jersey fixture being a prime example.
“I spoke with (Jersey DoR) Harvey Biljon after the match on Saturday and we both agreed that it had been a messy, scrappy affair,” said Cornwell.
“Our major problem – in both cup games, plus Ospreys in pre-season – has been the number of unforced errors.”
“They’re costing us points. Last week we were pushing for a try to make it 19-15, but we throw an interception and, the next thing you know, it’s 24-8! It’s a double blow.”
“We conceded a try at Doncaster by getting charged down within the first 30 seconds and then later in the game we drop a ball and they go 60 metres for the try. We’re giving teams points without them having to work for them.”
Neither game has been without positives, however.
“We knew that Jersey would be extremely strong in the set-piece and that aspect of the match was very even. Our scrum was solid, we were able to put their lineout under a bit of pressure and we scored through a drive of our own.”
“Beyond that, there were some good individual performances. Seb Nagle-Taylor had a very strong game and showed our supporters why we signed him, while both Joe Margetts and Nick David (pictured), in his first game for us, had some good moments coming off the bench.”
Cornwell is comfortable that he knows the majority of his starting line-up for when Doncaster visit on October 12th in the opening game of the 2019-20 Championship season, with maybe three or four positions up for grabs.
“We know it’s going to be a very tough game this weekend – whatever squad the Falcons send down – but the guys we pick for this match have got to go out there and show us that they want the shirt. We’re pretty sure that players are going to step up and say ‘pick me.’”
Saturday’s match kicks off at the normal time of 2.30pm.