Hartpury RFC will lock horns with the only team that did the double over them last season when Plymouth Albion pitch up on Saturday.
Although buoyed by last weekend’s outstanding 34-0 win over their fellow promotion contenders from last term, Blackheath, John Barnes’ men will be expecting a stiffer test from the Devon outfit.
They will face something of an unknown quantity too. While Plymouth have recruited many new players in the close season, they also have an entirely new coaching set-up with Dan Parkes, formerly of Brixham, now at the helm – replacing Graham Dawe who is now contributing to the coaching effort at Brixham, as well as other clubs in the area – and new owners after going into administration. Without the related points deduction last season, Plymouth would have finished in fourth spot.
Hartpury will head into Saturday’s clash without last week’s man of the match, number eight Zac Mercer, and also look set to be without winger and try machine, Jonas Mikalcius, as the Harlequins man is carrying a niggle. Lock Joe Dancer and centre Steve Leonard could also be ruled out through injury.
They have had a late boost, though, with the news that dual registered fly-half Adam Hastings – a stand-out performer against Blackheath – will be available following the cancellation of Bath’s A League match, previously scheduled for next Monday.
“We’ll need to make a fair few changes but we’re confident we have the strength in depth to cope with that,” said Director of Rugby, Barnes.
“It was a surprise to win so comfortably against Blackheath but I felt we played a very mature, controlled, disciplined game. We controlled possession and territory very well and we didn’t give them a chance to get their game going.
“We only conceded eight penalties and three of those were from scrum decisions. Their line-out was a threat last year but we didn’t allow them possession or territory in our half.
“Two tries in the first 15 minutes meant they were always chasing the game and, with the kind of game they like to play focused on the set piece, that was always going to be tough.
“Given that Blackheath beat two Championship sides in pre-season, we may end up looking back on last weekend as our best performance of the season, but there’s still 29 games to go and we’ll be making sure everyone keeps their feet on the ground.
“We’ll face much stiffer tests this season than we did last weekend and we’re not taking the threat of Plymouth lightly. They were the only team who did the double over us last season. They have been through massive changes but they still have the core of last season’s squad and they seem to know how to beat us.”
Plymouth also go into Saturday’s game on the back of a victory after they opened with a 23-18 win over newly-promoted Cambridge last week. After winning 22-17 at Hartpury (pictured) and then beating us 35-26 at the Brickfields last season, they will not be over-awed by a visit to the College.
Outside Gloucestershire, the eye-catching confrontation is at Billesley Common where Birmingham Moseley face Coventry in a local derby that resonates of an earlier era, when both clubs were among the strongest in the land. The 2016 version will be useful indicator of the relative strengths of two promotion hopefuls, both of whom had good wins in their opening fixtures.
Blackheath will be hoping to put last week behind them when Esher cross South London while another capital club with genuine aspirations, Rosslyn Park, will also look to get the show on the road against against Cambridge – the visitors having been blessed with two tough away fixtures to open their campaign.
It was Ampthill who beat Park in the opening round. They will be hoping that the relatively short trip to Albanians will allow them to stay at 100%, although the Hertfordshire side produced one of the results of the opening weekend by picking up a big bonus point win at Blaydon.
The Tynesiders, in turn, will look to make amends in a North-East derby at Darlington Mowden Park, while two teams from across the Pennines, Macclesfield and Fylde, meet in Cheshire. Loughborough are another side who will be looking to reverse opening-day fortunes when they welcome Hull Ionians, conquerors of DMP last weekend, to their campus.
Hartpury v Plymouth Albion kicks off at 2.30pm. We look forward to seeing you.