League rugby makes its long-awaited return this weekend and, despite opening with two home fixtures, Hartpury head coach, Mark Cornwell, is under no illusions regarding the size of the task posed by Blackheath on Saturday (2.30pm kick-off).
The Londoners finished just one point and one position behind second-placed Hartpury when the dust settled on National League One back in April, the College ahead thanks to a substantially higher number of try-scoring bonus points.
Games between the two, both in Gloucestershire and in London, have been incredibly close over the past two seasons, with four games producing aggregate scores less than 10 points apart. All games have gone narrowly to the home side.
Hartpury’s 15-9 win in March was only guaranteed by a Gareth Thompson penalty two minutes from time, although Hartpury did outscore their hosts two tries to nil on a day when two outstanding defences were on top
“Blackheath always have a strong set piece and a very physical set of forwards that provide the platform for them to rack up the points,” said Cornwell.
“Both teams have kept the core of last season’s squad and added good quality players in the close season, so confidence should be high. I’ve liked the way we’ve been looking in training, the patterns we’ve been running and the combinations we’ve been putting together.
“There’s always things to tweak but Blackheath will be in the same position. They will be coming here to win and we’re expecting a tough battle. They certainly never give you much time on the ball.
“But we know that two home games to start the season could give us a fantastic platform if we get off to a winning start and we’re fielding a strong squad.”
Blackheath have been reasonably busy on the recruitment front in the close season. While full-back and goal-kicker Freddie Gabbitas has moved to newly-promoted Richmond and outstanding openside Dave Allen has retired, Blackheath will have some new faces with Dan George (Worcester), Chris Walker (London Scottish), Mike Perks (Dragons) and Ben Cooper (Bury St Edmunds) all adding to the resources up front, while Mark Cooke (from Jersey and ex-Bristol), Chris Knight (also Dragons) and Ian Cross (Esher) provide fresh options in the backs.
Their pre-season has reaped wins over London Scottish, Carmarthen Quins and, by a surprisingly comfortable margin, over last year’s champions Richmond.
Hartpury will have learned plenty from last week’s tough outing at Ealing although they did pick up a couple of injuries, including lock Ben So’oialo-Chan. He takes a mandatory three-week rest after his concussion from a nasty head clash in that match.
It’s likely that there will be National One debuts for last season’s Cinderford skipper and full-back, Mike Wilcox, and former student Matt Gilbert, who returns to the Hartpury fold from Worcester Warriors. Andy Uren could make his first start at scrum-half, while Under-20s internationals Adam Hastings (returning) and Zac Mercer are both available for selection.
Hartpury will also be happy to see the return, following his pre-season adventures with Harlequins, of last season’s leading try-scorer, Jonas Mikalcius.
“We were pretty comfortable against Preston and Clifton so we wanted a tough, physical test at Ealing, which is exactly what we got!” said Cornwell
“We could have done without the couple of knocks we picked up but we’ve still got a strong side to take on Blackheath. The dual registered players from the likes of Bath and Bristol will certainly be valuable additions and it’s great to have Jonas available. He’s raring to go after his time with Quins and they already think very highly of him.
“The new coaching set-up has gelled really well too and it’s great for me and Barnesy (Director of Rugby, John Barnes) to have people like Jonny (Goodridge), Wayne (Thompson), Chris (Fortey) and Rhys (Oakley) to bounce around ideas with. Jonny is already proving a great addition.”
Other week one games include a clash between two more teams who would hope to be in the shake-up come April, namely Ampthill versus Rosslyn Park, while there will great interest in the performance of recently-arrived Moseley, who travel to Fylde.
Another club who will be under the microscope are Coventry as they host Loughborough Students. New Coventry Director of Rugby, Rowland Winter, fresh from promotion with Cambridge, has brought in a sea of new faces in an attempt to improve the fortunes of one of the game’s ‘sleeping giants’.
The three promoted clubs all have tricky looking away trips. Albanians travel north to Blaydon with Macclesfield heading to Esher. Cambridge go down to Plymouth, where it will be interesting to see how their hosts shape up after administration, new owners, a change of coaching staff and another turn-around in the playing resources. Mowden Park will visit Ionians in the other fixture.
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