Hartpury go into Week 26 of the National League 1 season, safe in the knowledge that their grasp on the title is secure, but equally determined to ensure that there is no let-up in the standards that they have maintained throughout the campaign.
Saturday’s opponents, Darlington Mowden Park, were on the wrong end of a 74-0 trouncing when they visited the Gillman’s Ground back in mid-November although, coming on the back of five successive defeats, that was definitely the low-point in their season.
Since then, they have steadied the ship considerably and now sit comfortably in mid-table, far away from the pressures of being in the relegation picture.
In that time, wins over Birmingham Moseley (away) and Ampthill have shown that they are more than capable of upsetting the leading sides, which makes them a dangerous proposition, according to Hartpury’s Director of Rugby, John Barnes.
“It’s always a tough place to go. They’ve turned their season around since they played us and have had some really good results.”
“They look to be a much-changed team and are playing like a very confident side, one with some very good players in it, from what we’ve been watching over the past few weeks. It will be a challenge. Besides the long trip, we were beaten there last year, so we know how tough it will be.”
Last season’s excursion to the cavernous Northern Echo Arena ended in a 36-27 defeat (James Stephenson, pictured in that match). Despite a bright start – which produced two early tries – and a strong finish, Hartpury were beaten by the better side on the day.
How does the coaching and management challenge change, now that promotion is in the bag?
“Not at all, really,” said Barnes. “We’ve known for a few weeks that we were likely to go up. Our main focus now is on remaining unbeaten. We’ve got five very tough games left and all of those teams are going to want to be the one that ends our run – that’s our challenge and our motivation for the next six weeks.”
Looking further ahead, and with the benefit of promotion being confirmed relatively early, are there any significant changes planned for next season?
“We’re staying part-time, with three early morning training sessions each week. In the main, we’ll be sticking with the players that got us here. We will have a few going out, who have signed with other clubs, so we will need to recruit one or two, but primarily our focus continues to be about development.”
The short break has given most of the squad time to shake off any little niggles and Barnes is not expecting many changes to the starting line-up for Saturday’s match. Hartpury also have a high-profile BUCS (Universities) Super Rugby final at Twickenham next Thursday, which may influence the eventual selection, expected to be made at the end of the week.