Hartpury RFC, after a three week break, enter 2017 knowing that a strong start to the year could help them build an unassailable lead in their bid to reach the Greene King IPA Championship.
With 16 successive wins already under their belt since the start of the campaign, Hartpury go into Saturday’s home match with Esher eyeing a run of fixtures that could see them being almost out of sight of their rivals by the end of the month.
They will be far from complacent, though, having come through the most severe of trials at Plymouth Albion in final game of 2016, edging home by a 27-24 margin, despite being under pressure and scoreless in the second half.
“It was certainly our toughest test of the season so far, as we knew it was likely to be” said Hartpury Director of Rugby, John Barnes. “We had a great spell before half-time which eventually won us the game. In the second half our set-piece came under a lot of pressure, but the way we defended was a credit to all the players. It was a really good challenge for our guys.”
“The Christmas break has come at a good time for us. Including pre-season, we have just played 19 matches on the bounce and, although we’ve been able to rotate in a number of positions, there are plenty of players who have been through a high number of games. Guys who had been carrying niggles have now had two or three weeks to rest them up and get some re-hab.”
This Saturday’s opponents have struggled to get their season going, despite a couple of good wins against top-half sides, and currently lie one position above the relegation places. All five of their victories this term have come at their Surrey home, although they were out-scored by four tries to one penalty try when Hartpury visited in September. 32-13 was the final margin that day.
“Esher haven’t had a fantastic season so far, but they are a team that tend to play well against us”, said Barnes.
“They are another side with a strong set-piece, but they also like to play rugby and use their back-line. We’re expecting a good challenge. They’ve obviously got nothing to lose, coming here, and we expect them to throw the ball about a bit and try to put us under pressure that way.”
Hartpury look set to be able to name a strong side, although influential ex-Premiership flanker Mat Gilbert, a try-scorer in the Plymouth fixture, is something of a doubt having a picked up a knock in training.
With no Aviva A-League fixtures in the near term, Hartpury are able to select from a full deck of dual-registered players, including current students Jonas Mikalcius (wing) and England Under-20 and Gloucester scrum half Harry Randall (pictured, scoring at Plymouth before Christmas), although no final decisions on the starting fifteen will be made until Friday.
In terms of the chasing pack, Birmingham Moseley should have too much firepower for visitors Hull Ionians, although Plymouth Albion and Ampthill both face testing away-days, at Rosslyn Park and Darlington Mowden Park respectively. Hartpury currently hold a 22-point advantage over Plymouth in second, with 14 league fixtures remaining.
Saturday’s game kicks off at 2.30pm.