Having narrowly lost, away from home, to a strong Coventry outfit last Saturday, Hartpury are in decent shape going into what is certainly their most important game of the season, so far, when Richmond visit the Gillman’s Ground this Friday evening (7.45pm).
There is no underestimating the importance of Friday’s match. Hartpury, bottom, currently lie exactly five points below their visitors. A win – better still with a bonus point – would see them close that gap and give themselves a chance of survival with seven games still to play.
Defeat would leave Hartpury needing to produce a miracle. The drama will be played out in front of the Sky Sports cameras, as the broadcaster makes its first-ever visit to the Gillman’s Ground for a Championship fixture.
Richmond are a team that Hartpury know well, having met several times in both the Championship and National 1 in recent seasons.
Most recently, it has been the Surrey side that have had the upper hand, with two narrow victories in the 2017-18 season being followed up by a far more emphatic win, at the Athletic Ground back in September, despite an opening try from Hartpury’s Rupert Harden (pictured).
The latter still ranks as Hartpury’s least inspiring performance of what has been a difficult season, and is not something that the coaches will want a repeat of on Friday.
However, there were plenty of signs, against Coventry, that things are starting to look a little brighter – according to Head Coach, Mark Cornwell.
“We were far better than we have been,” he said. “Obviously, that might be down to the fact that we’ve finally been able to bring in some of the loans and DRs that we’ve been looking for all season.”
“Regardless of the players that we had on the pitch, we knew it was going to be tough – Coventry have only lost twice at home all season and have picked up some notable scalps.”
“We started well, playing into the wind, and at 7-3 down at half time I felt that we were in better shape than we have been many times this year.”
“When we scored our first try, to go 10-7 up, I thought we were going to be able to build on that position.”
“But then we had 20 minutes of silly errors that really cost us and Coventry were able to score two tries and a penalty in that period.”
“So, in the end – and despite the losing bonus point – it was a disappointing result, but there were a huge number of positives to take from the game. We defended well, we retained possession and put them under pressure at times, our set piece was strong. With another week to come together, this has the makings of a decent side.”
Hartpury have frequently made use of loans and dual-registrations from local premiership clubs – what particular challenges does this raise from a coaching perspective?
“You want the guys that come in to show a really good attitude,” said Cornwell. “You want them to show that they’ve got the desire to perform in a Hartpury shirt, even if it’s just to show the coaches back at their home clubs what they can do. As we know, quite a few of these ‘imports’ came through the system here at Hartpury, so the games do have some meaning for them”
“We also need the communications between players to ‘click’ as quickly as possible. Obviously we get a chance to be able to work with the players in training but, once we get into the pressure of a live match, it’s very much up to them.”
Looking ahead to Friday, Cornwell knows that whatever team he is able to field will need to produce a strong performance to get the result that the club so desperately needs.
“Richmond aren’t a side full of ‘stars’. You don’t look at their squad and see a bunch of ex-Premiership players. What they do have – and what you have to admire – is a very, very good work ethic and a willingness to play for each other.”
“Their style hasn’t really changed that much since they’ve been in the Championship. They’ve got a good driving line-out, they work hard in defence and they’re very well organised.”
“We are quite similar, in that we’ve both had to limit a more expansive style in order to be able to live with the higher quality opposition in the Championship. Fair play to Richmond for the fact that they’ve been able to dig out the results that they have needed to survive at this level over the past three years.”
Player-wise, Cornwell is hopeful that Hartpury will be able to retain the majority of those who appeared at Coventry and, maybe, even add one or two for this important fixture. An announcement regarding the final composition of the match-day squad will be made at noon on Thursday.