After a long pre-season, the 2019-20 competitive season is almost here!
It’s been a long wait, due to the impact of the 2019 Rugby World Cup – which also kicks off in the next few days – but Hartpury’s players will finally get to lace up their boots with some meaningful purpose when we travel to Castle Park, home of the Doncaster Knights, this Saturday.
It is not, as yet, the ultra-serious business of the Greene King IPA Championship, but this match – the first of three successive Championship Cup ties with which the season opens – will nonetheless be one in which Hartpury will be keen to give a strong account of themselves.
Doncaster will again be the opposition by the time league action starts in mid-October and Hartpury will be hopeful that, by then, they will have shaken off any early season rustiness. The clubs will then meet twice more this season, with a further Cup pool game scheduled for December.
The other two teams in the same group, Jersey and Newcastle Falcons, will meet on the island. Those two clubs then visit Hartpury over the following two weekends, forming a run of three successive home games for the Red & Blacks, ending in that league opener with the Knights.
Back to Saturday and Hartpury will be facing a Knights team who have won all three games in pre-season, including an away victory at Welsh Premiership club, Bridgend Ravens.
There is quite a history of former Hartpury students playing their rugby at the Knights and, although Andy Bulumakau and Paul Jarvis have left the club in recent seasons, that tradition is carried on by hookers Ben Hunter and George Edgson, the latter a recent signing from Ealing Trailfinders, as well as back row forward Tom Calladine.
Calladine was a BUCS winner during his student career and it is likely that the squad for Saturday will feature at least some players who have been part of Hartpury’s hugely successful university team of the past three seasons, including current undergraduates.
Missing from that number, however, will be the exciting scrum-half, Toby Venner. Although he is expected to be pushing for RFC selection this season, his guest performances for the Bristol Bears in last weekend’s Premiership Rugby 7s – eight tries in four games – have seen him invited to train with the England 7s squad this weekend.
The other absentees are back row forward Iain Grieve, who is still returning from a routine summer knee clear-out, and lock forward Ben Thompson who picked up a foot injury at the Ospreys.
Director of Rugby, John Barnes, is happy that the action is finally about to start.
“After an extended pre-season it’s good to finally arrive at the competitive fixtures,” he said.
“The first three games, all in the Cup, will give us a chance to continue to look at our new players and combinations, which is all in preparation for the visit of Doncaster for the first League match in October.”
Hartpury lost twice to the Knights last season. They gave up a strong half-time position in the away fixture a year ago, before slumping to a very disappointing and comprehensive home defeat early in the new year.
The squad, of course, has been completely revitalised since then but Barnes is still expecting a very stiff challenge on Saturday.
“Doncaster, as usual, will be a very good side this year,” he said.
“They’ve made some significant signings, from the likes of Yorkshire Carnegie, which have boosted their squad and I’m sure they’ll be looking to pick up from their overall performance last year.”
“Traditionally, Knights are one of the stronger sides in the Championship and they may feel that they under-achieved last season by their own high standards.”
The squad announcement for Saturday’s match – which will kick off at 2.30pm – will be made on Friday. Hartpury’s cup campaign will continue with home ties against Jersey Reds (28th September, 2pm) and recently relegated Premiership club Newcastle Falcons (October 5th, 2.30pm).