Hartpury RFC are busily preparing, on and off the pitch, for one of their biggest ever days when the club hosts Champions-elect Bristol Rugby at the Gillman’s Ground this coming Saturday (3pm).
The crowd promises to be the largest ever seen at the ground, with temporary seating being erected to accommodate supporters of both teams, in what should be a party atmosphere.
Both sides have something to celebrate from the season – Bristol, obviously, their immediate return to the Aviva Premiership, while Hartpury will be able to reflect on a job well done in their first ever Greene King IPA Championship campaign.
Converting a few of those last-gasp defeats into more positive results would have seen the Red & Blacks achieve a much higher finish in a season which has seen many lessons learnt.
The home side will certainly want to finish the campaign on a high and what better opportunity than to have a crack at the side that – one game apart – have carried all before them this term?
Hartpury’s only previous encounter with Bristol was at Ashton Gate on the opening day where they certainly gave a very good account of themselves.
Having enjoyed the majority of the territory and possession, Hartpury were not flattered by holding a narrow half-time lead, which could have been greater had referee Matthew O’Grady not leant the wrong way on a couple of key decisions.
Bristol eventually established some control after the break to take the game 26-15, but Hartpury had done plenty to announce themselves in the second tier.
Hartpury Director of Rugby, John Barnes, does recognise that plenty has changed since that wet day back in September.
“There is a very different feel around this game,” he said.
“They are the Champions. They’re going up. They have got players who will be leaving after this game and news faces coming in, a change in their branding – there’s a lot going on at their club at the moment.
Looking back to that opening fixture, we really did go into that feeling as though we were going to be competitive. I think we surprised Bristol that day, as well as all the other clubs in the Championship.
We’re going into this Saturday very much looking forward to the occasion. It’s a great opportunity to get a big crowd in, the biggest in our history so far, and also to test ourselves against a professional, Premiership-quality side.”
Hartpury sparked their Ashton Gate performance by exerting a great deal of pressure at both the set-piece and the breakdown. Are these the areas that they will target again?
“It was a wet-weather game and the first for Bristol under a new coaching set-up,” said Barnes.
“It’s certainly an aspect of their game that they have worked on since. Their set-piece, both against Doncaster last week and Nottingham the week before was very, very good.
Mark Irish has certainly turned their scrum around, so fair play to him. The set-piece is an area where we’ve generally been competitive all season so we’ll just have to see what happens. As always, conditions could play a part.”
Hartpury come into the game with a largely clean bill of health. Mat Gilbert will not feature again until next season, but Steve Leonard – yet to appear at the Gillman’s Ground in a year almost completely written off by injury – is expected to be available.
It should also be an interesting afternoon for Harry Randall, anticipated to be back at scrum-half for Hartpury after missing the recent game at Ealing Trailfinders.
The former Hartpury student – both an AASE and BUCS-winner at the institution – will be playing against his future employers, following the announcement that he will be joining Bristol, from Gloucester, in the summer. Let’s hope he gives his new management team plenty to think about…
Irrespective of individual ambitions, Hartpury will be well-advised not give Bristol the kind of start that Trailfinders enjoyed a fortnight ago.
“A hot day on the rubber crumb is not the best place to be against a fully-loaded Ealing team,” said Barnes. “After 12 minutes and at 26-0 I was feeling a bit nervous.”
“But once we got hold of the ball and kept it, we were able to put them under a bit of pressure. We got the score back to 33-29, before a couple of silly mistakes allowed them to pull away again.
I was really pleased with the way that the guys fought back after a rough start. We’ll need to be defending better than that next season, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with the attitude.”
Barnes, along with all Hartpury supporters, will be looking for a similar spirit on Saturday.