It’s not very often that the side sitting second in the league goes in to a game against the team lying seventh as underdogs. However, that is arguably the scenario as Hartpury travel to Darlington Mowden Park this weekend.
Despite the occasional hiccup on the road, Hartpury have shown themselves to be reasonably good long-distance travelers over the past two campaigns in League 1.
A good win at the Northern Echo Arena last season, backed up by wins at Wharfedale, Tynedale, Blaydon (twice) and Fylde (twice), are all evidence that the motorway north holds no particular fears for the College side.
This time, though, there is something slightly different. After a sluggish start to season, in which they lost seven of their first nine fixtures, Park have subsequently prevailed in eleven straight games, a run which stretches back to their 25-15 win at Plymouth Albion on 14th November.
Their earlier form was no doubt influenced by the decision to hand over their impressive stadium to RWC 2015, meaning that six of those opening nine fixtures were played away from home. However, the group that went down to a 50-7 defeat on their visit to Hartpury in October looked anything but a team that was about to cut a swathe through the league, which makes the recent run of form all the more remarkable. (Pictured – Kai Little scores a long range try in the game vs DMP in October)
Their most recent win, at Loughborough, came at a cost, however, as they will almost certainly be without centre Garry Law and flanker Luca Petillo who both sustained significant injuries in the match.
Hartpury will take some solace from the fact that none of those eleven wins were against the current top three and will be trusting that their own form is sufficiently strong to see them come back from Teesside with the points.
That form is a little hard to read. Three successive bonus point wins, with 155 points scored in the process, is as good a return as could have been expected in recent weeks, although all three of those results came against teams currently occupying the relegation spots.
Prior to that, there was a patchy spell when wins against Richmond (away), Fylde (away) and Coventry (home) were punctuated by defeats against Rosslyn Park, Plymouth and Esher.
As such, Hartpury will be keen to show that the recent big victories were a genuine sign of form and not simply a case of cashing in. With Blackheath to come to Gloucestershire in Week 23, the College know that they need to be at their best at this time.
Leaders Richmond travel to last weekend’s opponents, Henley, while Blackheath will seek to bounce back from their loss at Wharfedale by seeing off Loughborough Students at home.
Plymouth, seven points further back from Blackheath, travel to Cinderford while Esher, on the same points, will need to beat visitors Fylde to stay in contact.
Like Loughborough, Ionians are not completely clear of trouble, which gives their trip to Blaydon added significance. Since getting thumped at the College, Blaydon have suffered two narrow defeats – including one in seemingly farcical conditions at Plymouth – and they will know that a win is important if they are to keep in touch with Wharfedale.
The Yorkshire side were apparently good value for last Saturday’s result and 12 league points from their past four fixtures will have done nothing but good for their morale – similarly the recent return of influential half-back James Doherty. Their game at Ampthill this week should contain plenty of big collisions…
Rosslyn Park and Coventry both slipped to away defeats last week and they meet, in the definition of a mid-table clash, at Roehampton.