Hartpury can mix it with the strongest sides in the Green King IPA Championship. That’s the view of experienced club skipper, Rhys Oakley.
A first half knock meant that Oakley (pictured) spent a part of last Friday night wondering where he was, before a Head Injury Assessment ruled him out of any further involvement in the narrow defeat to fifth-placed Nottingham Rugby.
“I don’t remember too much about the game,” he said. “I’ve had to watch the video to remind myself what went on!”
Hartpury were subdued by a strong Nottingham start and allowed their hosts to open up a 23-0 lead, before finally putting together a second half revival to finish just three points adrift, 31-28, at the whistle.
“Nottingham are a good side and will be up there at the end of the year,” said Oakley.
“They tested us, and probably played more rugby than any Championship other side we’ve come up against. They threw the ball wide and put a lot of pressure on us.
We might have been a little off the pace early on and we certainly made it easier for them by the number of penalties that we gave away.”
The penalty count was certainly a key factor in the first half, before Hartpury got a foot-hold in the game.
“A lot of the penalties were coming from silly mistakes and it meant that all of the pressure was on us, because they had virtually all the ball in the first half,” Oakley said.
“Whenever we got our hands on it, we gave a penalty away within two or three phases which meant that we couldn’t build anything of our own.
We were much better in the second half. We kept hold of the ball and managed to work through the phases and we were then able to test them defensively.”
Hartpury face an equally tough challenge this weekend, when Doncaster Knights will visit the Gillman’s Ground.
Doncaster have been a powerful force in Championship rugby over the past two or three seasons, reaching the play-off final in 2015-16 and again reaching the play-offs, despite a slightly more mixed campaign, last season.
A powerful and well-organised pack provide plenty of opportunities for some of the flyers outside, such as former Hartpury BUCS-winner, Paul Jarvis, and ex-Gloucester academy man Andrew Bulumakau.
“They’ve been right up there for the past few seasons,” said Oakley.
“We know how good they are. They’ve got good individuals and as a side they are very well-drilled and play with a lot of power.”
Oakley, however, prefers to remain focused on what his own side will bring to Saturday’s game.
“We can take a lot of confidence from the fact that we’ve been able to mix it with some very strong sides,” he told us.
“OK, we haven’t had the wins, but we have definitely been there or thereabouts. It’s important for us now to take that next step and finish games off.”
“Confidence is good. We didn’t really know, until we started playing, how we were going to stack up against established Championship sides – Richmond came up a season ahead of us and had to wait a number of weeks before they got their first win.
We seem to have managed the transition between National One and the Championship pretty well and have been competitive in all of our games so far – no team has scored a bonus point against us yet.”
Oakley is enjoying life in Gloucestershire. Now in the twilight of a playing career that has seen him represent Wales, as well as playing club rugby at Bristol, Newport Gwent Dragons, Northampton, Plymouth and Leeds (now Yorkshire Carnegie) – where he was coached by former England supremo Stuart Lancaster – he is now relishing his coaching roles, both inside and outside of Hartpury.
“I was the forwards coach at Plymouth (his previous club), under James Shanahan, in a player-coach role. I’m also now coach at Lydney, in South West Premier, and it was great that they were able to get off the mark last weekend,” he said.
“At Hartpury, I work with Wayne (Thompson), Jonny (Goodridge) and Evesy (Luke Eves) on the AASE squad, where I help with the forwards, but as a coaching staff here we all chip in where necessary.”
“We keep the same structures across all of our teams, so that makes it easier for us to help each other out.”
“I love it here. It’s great to work alongside good coaches and we have come a long way in the three seasons that I’ve been here.”
“It’s also exciting to work with young players and see them coming through. Young lads that I worked with at AASE level a couple of years ago, like Harry Randall, have come through and are now performing really well in the Championship – it’s great to be a part of something like that.”
Saturday’s match at the Gillman’s Ground kicks off at 2.30pm.