Preview Week 29:  Plymouth Albion v Hartpury College

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After a weekend in which all of the important season-long outcomes were done and dusted, we can relax and look forward to a couple of weeks in which we can kick back and watch rugby being played just for the fun of it.

Well, it’s a nice theory…

Having worked pretty hard for 28 games though, the smart money should be on the fact that Hartpury remain focused on achieving the best possible finish to a season which still has a very good chance of producing a second-place finish.

With Director of Rugby, Alan Martinovic, and no doubt a number of players, saying goodbye after the final fixture (vs Ionians, at home) there is every incentive for the team to end this season on a high…

Last week’s result against Richmond was disappointment because of the manner of it – unable to break down a stubborn defence despite almost unlimited second half possession and the concession of a couple of ‘sucker punch’ tries – but that does not detract from Richmond’s achievement in winning promotion after a very strong season.  We wish them every success in their attempt to re-establish themselves at a higher level.

Nor should it detract from Hartpury’s assessment of their season overall.  With plenty of players barely into their twenties, and a few younger, there are always going to be occasional lapses and wrong options taken.  To finish in the top two or three at this level would be another solid achievement for a sporting organisation that has advanced, year-on-year, since its origin not much more than a decade ago.

Another side who have had a decent season so far, following financial difficulties, relegation and a summer of rebuilding, are Saturday’s hosts Plymouth Albion.  Following the slip from the Championship they lost virtually all of their professional players but, after a slightly patchy start, have emerged as one of the stronger and more cohesive National 1 outfits.

Once again, however, events off the pitch are taking the gloss off a season of solid achievement.  The club recently announced that it was going into administration, but that new owners were waiting in the wings.  A 30-point penalty appears to be the sanction for this chain of events, although at what point that penalty gets applied is less clear – certainly neither the RFU or NCA websites are showing any deduction at the time of writing.

More surprisingly, Plymouth have this week parted company with their Director of Rugby, former Bath and England hooker Graham Dawe, the man most credited by many for their encouraging showing this season.  Following him out of the door have been other members of the coaching team including former Gloucester Academy coach Simon Lane, a familiar face at Hartpury.

Despite plenty of speculation, the reasons behind this change are less than clear and will probably remain so for some time.  Albion supporters are unhappy and there is talk of a boycott of Saturday’s match, which could make for a slightly unusual atmosphere…

Of course, if Plymouth’s players remain un-fazed and are able to produce the level of performance we know they are capable of, then Saturday’s game will be extremely tough.  Bonus points aside, they have an identical playing record to Hartpury (won 20, lost 8) and the benefit of great recent form.

Starting with their win at Hartpury back in Week 15 (17-22, despite an opening try from Gareth Thompson, pictured), they have won 12 of the last 14.  Only a heavy defeat at Ampthill – themselves one of the real form teams over the past few weeks – and a slightly surprising home defeat to Ionians are there to blot the copybook. However, they had also won their three games prior to the fixture at Hartpury, so make that 15 wins from 17 matches.  Good going.

Therefore, Saturday will be an interesting fixture for more than just the usual reasons.  Hartpury, of course, will need to ignore all of the extraneous ‘stuff’ and focus on producing another strong performance.  No detailed team news as yet, although with one or two coming back into the reckoning, the coaches should have a strong pool to choose from.

Elsewhere, Richmond will no doubt revel in the fact that their first game as Champions-elect is against their near neighbours, Rosslyn Park.  Of more interest to Hartpury will be the result from a seemingly much-improved Coventry, where third-placed Ampthill are the visitors, and at Esher, who host Blackheath (4th).

With Henley, Cinderford and Wharfedale already guaranteed National Two rugby next season, it is an appropriate time to conclude by wishing them all the best and asking our friends at Cinderford, in particular, to come back soon.

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