After last week’s stirring away win at leaders Richmond, Hartpury go into their final game of 2015 knowing that a victory over first-time visitors Plymouth Albion could take them back to the top of National League One.
Richmond face a potentially difficult, if short, trip to local rivals Rosslyn Park and are currently just one point clear.
Plymouth’s recent history has been a little traumatic. After 13 seasons in English rugby’s second tier, the club had a torrid time in 2014-15, eventually slipping to an almost inevitable relegation against a backdrop of financial turmoil.
With a need to re-structure, there followed the equally inevitable exodus of established players, many of whom were seeking to preserve their Championship status. There was a summer of comings and goings at the Brickfields and not a little uncertainty as to what calibre of side Albion would be able to field in the season ahead.
The club are fortunate to have an experienced hand on the tiller, in the form of former Bath and England hooker Graham Dawe, who has returned to club. Dawe is assisted by former Gloucester Academy man Simon Lane, who will be extremely familiar with many of the Hartpury squad.
With an influx of players from other clubs in the region, Plymouth have made a solid start to life in National One and currently lie sixth in the table, having won eight of 14 matches so far. They opened the season with an eye-catching win over Richmond but then became a model of inconsistency, winning and losing games, usually by narrow margins, on almost strict rotation.
However, they come into Saturday’s fixture, in which they will seek to end Hartpury’s 100% home record, on the back of three straight victories with wins over Ampthill (home 18-13), Wharfedale (away 9-12) and Loughborough (home 34-27) under their belts.
Albion, much like Coventry, is a ‘city’ club with the potential to attract good crowds and interest from lucrative sponsors. They will, again like Coventry, have some expectation of promotion within the foreseeable future, if not this season. It will be interesting to see how they develop from their current situation and, more immediately, how they cope with the potentially potent Hartpury side this weekend.
Reports from Devon suggest that they might be missing hooker James Penman and big lock Dan Collier from their powerful pack for Saturday’s game, although we assume they will have Nile Dacres, fresh from his hat-trick of tries against Loughborough last time out.
Billy Searle, a fly half who trained with Hartpury in the 2014 pre-season, has been a reliable source of points for Albion this season, whilst former BUCS and RFC back-rower, Andy Chesters, is also on the books at the Brickfields. Both moved from Launceston in the summer.
Elsewhere, we have already mentioned the Park v Richmond clash as having a direct influence at the top of the table. Also still very much in contention are Blackheath (3rd), currently two points behind Hartpury, with just two losses this season despite some desperately narrow escapes. They face an Esher team (4th) that had been going along nicely until last week’s home defeat against a resurgent DMP.
Wharfedale (14th) will hoping to get a boost from last week’s away win when they host Fylde (10th) at The Avenue, while their recent victims, Hull Ionians (11th), travel to Loughborough (12th). The key game at the foot of the table takes place in Oxfordshire where Cinderford (15th), beaten by a final-play Rosslyn Park try last week, will seek to add to Henley’s (16th) recent run of defeats which stretches back for seven matches.
Ampthill (7th) and Coventry (8th) meet in Bedfordshire and there is another derby game in the North East where Darlington Mowden Park (9th) will want to keep their recent good run going against Blaydon (13th).