Powerful centre, Steve Leonard (pictured), who has barely featured for Hartpury in the past two seasons but is now back to full fitness, could be set to make a timely return this weekend.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Saturday’s home fixture against London Scottish (2.30pm), which represents a chance for Hartpury to cement their Greene King IPA Championship status for a third successive season.
It is an opportunity that looked unlikely back in the dark days of January, as Hartpury slipped further adrift at the bottom of the league table.
There would have been few who witnessed the very poor performance away to this weekend’s opponents – or the subsequent heavy home defeat to the Doncaster Knights – that would have wagered serious money on the Red & Blacks’ chances of avoiding a first-ever relegation.
Yet a run of four wins in five games, before last weekend, starting with an emphatic home victory against fellow strugglers Richmond, has left the Gloucestershire side with their fate largely in their own hands.
The equation is fairly simple. Assuming that league-leaders, London Irish, prove to be too strong for Richmond at the Athletic Ground on Good Friday, then any sort of win for the home team on Saturday should be good enough to ensure their status. Hartpury will have the benefit of knowing the result from Richmond before they take to the field.
Hartpury are currently one point ahead of Richmond at the foot of the table and, crucially, have gained one additional league win – six as opposed to five – which will be the deciding factor should the two clubs finish level on points.
There are some alternative permutations involving bonus points – and Richmond can be guaranteed to fight for everything on Friday – but with Irish very keen to avoid a final day shoot-out with their only challengers, Ealing Trailfinders, the Hartpury hope is that they will be ruthless in their pursuit of victory.
They certainly were last weekend, when a hapless Hartpury were the unfortunate visitors to the Madejski Stadium. Despite taking an early lead, the Red and Blacks reverted back to that January form, in slumping to a painful 57-12 defeat.
“Irish played exactly like a side who are on the verge of clinching promotion,” said Hartpury’s Head Coach, Mark Cornwell.
“They were far more clinical than us and far more physical,” he said. “They punished us in all aspects of the match.”
“Yes, we scored first, but after that it was one-way traffic and we were off the pace of the game completely. We took a few bumps along the way, but the only good news to come out of last Sunday was that everybody is likely to be on their feet and ready to go again by Saturday.”
Hartpury were without one or two of their more influential players for the trip to the Exiles, but Cornwell is hopeful that most will be back ‘on deck’ for London Scottish. Certainly, it will be a game that Hartpury should be fully-focused for.
“The players know that this is certainly the biggest game in the club’s history,” said Cornwell.
“The good news is that is it’s in our hands. It’s up to us to go out and win this game and go a long way to securing Championship rugby for next season.”
“I’m really hoping that the boys who have, for the most part, really stood up in recent weeks and shown what it means to play for Hartpury, will be fully ready to do that again this weekend.”
“Scottish are safe now, but we can’t be concerned with how they are likely to approach this game, as either players or coaches.”
“As far as I know, nobody goes out on to the pitch to lose a game of rugby, so we’ve got to make sure that we’ll be ready for everything that they will bring and look to test them in all areas.”
It is likely that one or two of those unavailable to Hartpury last week, due to a variety of bumps and niggles, will back in the frame.
“We’ll be putting out the strongest side that we possibly can,” said Cornwell, “and we’ve got one more training session to make sure that we are fully prepared.”
One player who is likely to make an appearance is Leonard.
The man who previously terrorised defences throughout the National Leagues, has had scant opportunity to show his quality in the Championship due to a wretched run of injuries, but his strike rate in those few matches has still been good and he has trained well at Hartpury over the past few weeks, on his way back to full fitness.
Hartpury will announce their squad on Good Friday.
If the worst happens this weekend, Hartpury will have one final chance of salvation. However, a final day away trip to one of the league’s in-form clubs, Yorkshire Carnegie, with a win a necessity, is not a situation that Cornwell and his men will want to have to deal with.