The ‘sharp end’ of the season is now with us and there will be plenty at stake when the team from the Yorkshire Dales come to visit this weekend.
Hartpury remain in second place and will want to maintain pressure on the leaders, but the disappointing defeat at Ampthill last time out means that the title is now very much Richmond’s to lose. On the other side of the coin, however, Wharfedale will need every point going if they are to stay at a level that they have graced since before many of our players were born…
Loughborough’s fine win at Blaydon, in the only game played last weekend, did a lot to clarify the situation at the bottom of the table with all teams having now played 24 matches. Wharfedale, whose fixtures after Hartpury include Richmond (home) and Plymouth (away) in successive weeks, now find themselves in the bottom three and 10 points adrift of Ionians, who they also host as part of their run-in.
Is it too much to suggest that defeat for Wharfedale on Saturday would effectively consign them, along with Cinderford and Henley, to life in League Two?
Whether that happens, of course, depends greatly on which Hartpury team turns up. Will it be the team that gritted out a fine home win in a fiercely competitive fixture with Blackheath three weeks ago, or the side that was almost meek in the first half debacle at Ampthill?
The rigours, for a handful of the players, of ‘doubling up’ in university and RFC fixtures are now a thing of the past and a 10-day gap since the BUCS semi-final at Loughborough can only have helped one or two of the players who were starting to look a little jaded.
We’ve had virtually no rain here for a week and with nothing significant forecast before Saturday we might have the opportunity to see Hartpury on firm pitch and with a dry ball – not that there was anything wrong with the conditions at Ampthill…
The clubs have only met in Gloucestershire once before, when Wharfedale spoiled the occasion of Hartpury’s first-ever League One fixture back in September 2014. Hartpury also lost in Yorkshire last season, but did extract a measure of revenge with a convincing 45-0 away win back in November, featuring seven tries including one from Jake Polledri (pictured).
There is no team news at this stage, although Wharfedale may continue to be without their influential half-back and skipper, former Cornish Pirates and Yorkshire Carnegie man James Doherty.
Having missed a lot of the early season following a heavy knock to the head in last season’s Yorkshire Cup Final, to the extent that his continued participation in the sport was called into question, he collected another head injury in a game at Ampthill a month ago and has yet to re-appear. We wish him a speedy recovery.
Richmond’s victory at Blackheath in their last game gives them a 13-point buffer at the top and Hartpury will be hoping that Ampthill can now do them a favour at the RAG on Saturday, although Richmond will be firm favourites on their own patch.
Either Blackheath or Plymouth could overtake Hartpury if the College were to slip up to ‘Dale – they meet each other in Devon in what looks like another tough trip for the London side currently on a run of three straight, albeit narrow, defeats.
Wins for any of Loughborough, Blaydon or Ionians would allow them to breathe a little more easily going into April – with six games remaining each are in a position where another 8-10 points should see them safe. None are involved in foregone conclusions this week, however, as Students host Rosslyn Park and Ionians represent something of a local fixture for a strong DMP. Blaydon, with only one away win this season, will do well to come away from Esher with the spoils.
Coventry, currently on 50 points, should have enough to stay out of any trouble – Cinderford are the visitors to the Butts on Saturday. As has been stated here more than once in recent weeks, only a miracle will save the Foresters this time around and the same can be said of Henley, who visit Fylde.