Following a disappointing outing at London Scottish on Friday evening, Hartpury now need to pick themselves up for the visit of Doncaster Knights to the Gillman’s Ground, this Saturday (2.30pm).
Home supporters will have happy memories of last season’s encounter with the South Yorkshire side, when a Harry Randall-inspired performance saw them not only claim a well-deserved win, with virtually the last play of the game, but also the 4-try bonus point.
The fact that three of those tries came from the livewire scrum-half (pictured, from that game), now regularly featuring in the Premiership for Bristol Bears, is not lost on Head Coach, Mark Cornwell.
“You’ve only got to look at what Harry’s doing now, at Ashton Gate, to see how much quality he offers to a team,” he said.
“He was outstanding in that game and, as a team, we played well. We controlled possession and, in the end, Doncaster were struggling to defend against us.”
Cornwell considers that, notwithstanding the loss of a player like Randall, the Championship has been much harder this time around.
“Without a doubt, the standard is higher than last season,” he said. “It’s very tough – and speaking to a lot of people around the game, it seems that many of them are seeing it the same way.”
“Obviously, we are playing against full-time professional outfits every week – all well-organised and difficult to break down. Beyond that, there seem to be new players popping up at these clubs on a weekly basis and you’re just left thinking ‘where did he come from?’”
“The other aspect that’s different from last year is that there’s no club adrift at the bottom. No disrespect to Rotherham, but the writing was on the wall for them last year and by Christmas time we were virtually safe.”
“Coventry have come up this season with a strong squad, so it’s a very different league this time.”
Given that scenario, Cornwell will know that his team cannot afford another performance like last week when, after a bright start, they quickly ran out of ideas and were left to try and chase the game in the second half.
“For the first 15-20 minutes we were very much where we wanted to be,” he said. “We were doing ok, controlling possession and territory.”
“Then we make one silly mistake which gives them a score. Two minutes later, we’ve lost (prop forward) Rupert Harden with a fractured skull and, before you know it, we’re having to play catch-up.”
“To be fair to Scottish, they played it well and kept us pinned back for much of the second half. We couldn’t break out and, eventually, ended up making even more mistakes – but that’s the level that we’re paying at.”
“To give credit to the boys – even though we weren’t performing to the standard we are looking for – we did work hard and defended well for long periods after the break.”
“We could have capitulated and fallen apart, because we just didn’t have a lot of the ball after half-time, but we put in a lot of effort and, for all that Scottish threw at us, managed to deny them the bonus point.”
So how does Cornwell respond to the sort of run that Hartpury are in – an unusual situation after so many years of almost unbroken success?
“The good thing is that the spirits are still very high,” he said. “We’ve looked at the sessions that we’re running this week and tried to liven them up by introducing some new drills and routines. It all helps to keep things lively and positive.”
“We’ll also bring some fresh faces in this week, but, like I said, it’s a tough league.”
“What we’ve got to remember is that we’ve still got half of the season to go and we get another crack at all these teams. Clearly, it’s important for us to keep working hard on picking up some wins and getting the points we need to get away from the foot of the table.”
“You don’t need me to tell you that we are going to be fighting from now until the end of April. Absolutely the last thing that we want is to be in a situation where’s there’s five games to go and we’ve got nothing left to play for.”
“That starts on Saturday. We know what to expect from Doncaster. They’re going to be big and they’re going to be physical and they’ve got bags of experience at this level.”
“Having said that, they’ve won just four games this season in the league – including a very good win at Coventry last week – so they’re not a million miles away from us.”
That 23-17 result was enough to put Doncaster ten points clear of Hartpury in the current standings. Between them sit Richmond and Yorkshire Carnegie – both on 16 points to Hartpury’s 11 – the latter reinvigorated by a winter ‘shopping spree’ in the southern hemisphere.
However, Hartpury are well aware that two or three good results over the next few weeks could give them the momentum they have lacked since early season.
The Hartpury squad will be announced on Friday, at noon.