Courtesy of the Championship Cup, Hartpury will line up against the Cornish Pirates for the seventh time in 14 months when the two sides meet again, at the Gillman’s Ground on Saturday.
The clubs were also drawn together in the final iteration of the British & Irish Cup competition last season, leading to a growing familiarity between the two squads.
Not that the Pirates will be complaining. Having prevailed in all six matches so far, they could be forgiven for looking forward to their encounters with Hartpury, whether they be in Cornwall or in Gloucestershire.
The most recent instalment was at the Mennaye last Sunday when, after a competitive opening 30 minutes, the Pirates stretched out to a comfortable 53-17 victory, assisted by three yellow cards for the visitors.
“We made far too many basic errors – too many dropped balls and too many poor decisions – and a side as good as Pirates are going to punish you.”
That was the assessment of Hartpury’s Head Coach, Mark Cornwell.
“I also think the players have struggled with the new tackle law,” he said, “as it’s coming very much down to the interpretation of individual referees and that is producing inconsistency.”
“We’ve worked on this in training, but our performance was no different in week one of the cup – when we were fine – than in week three, when we were absolutely punished by the referee. I’ve got spectators asking me what’s going on and I’ve got no answers.”
The other major problem for Cornwell right now, as it has been for much of the season, is injuries.
“We haven’t even been close to naming an unchanged squad for any game this season,” he said.
“It’s really tough to get any sort of continuity. We’ve got too many players sitting out injured and all we can do is wait for their return. It seems that all our absences this season have been for a couple of months, rather than a week or two.”
“Yes, we had always planned to use the cup campaign to give some of the younger guys a chance, but not this many!”
“Additionally, the university competition is getting better – and tougher – year on year which is another factor that’s more of an issue now than in the past, because we have to have more balanced approach to selection every week.”
The other side of the coin, of course, is that the circumstances do allow some of those younger players to shine and Cornwell was quick to praise the players taking that opportunity.
“Tom Pashley was given the job of captain last Sunday and I was happy that he stepped up as well as he did. We already know that he gives absolutely everything for the team and he’s versatile enough to play anywhere across the back row. It’s great, now, to see him finding his feet at Championship level.”
“Luke Stratford was another player who gave it 100% and I felt that Charlie Chapman had a good game at scrum half. So it wasn’t all bad news, but we need to be better, from one to fifteen, to have a chance of beating teams like the Pirates.”
Looking ahead, how does Cornwell go about preparing his team to play a side that have recently beaten them in six successive games?
“There’s not very much that I don’t know about them – I’ve now analysed them seven times in little more than a year!”
“However, it’s one thing to know what they are going to do, but it’s another to find a way of stopping it.”
“It’s obvious that they are a very good outfit with some excellent combinations in key positions, but that’s the challenge that we need to rise to”.
“Of course it’s frustrating that they’ve come out on top every time, so far, and there’s no particular reason why it should suddenly become any easier on Saturday, as they’ve got a pretty settled team.”
There may be some light at the end of the tunnel for Cornwell and his colleagues as, despite one or two fresh injuries cropping up this week, there are a few important players who may be close to a return.
“Guys like Steve Leonard (pictured), Mike Wilcox, Luke Eves and Will Tanner are all close to selection for Saturday, having been out for varying lengths of time,” said Cornwell.
“Rupert Harden is back available and Simon Linsell was rested for most of last week’s game, so we may be in better shape for this match.”
“Other players, like Dan Murphy, Rob Langley and Iain Grieve might still need two or three weeks, so we’re targeting getting back to something like full strength for the return of league rugby at the end of December.”
Saturday’s fixture, which kicks off at the usual time of 2.30pm, will be preceded by a minute’s silence for former long-serving Hartpury RFC President, Martin Baber, who sadly passed away this week.