Hartpury are preparing for the final home game of a very condensed Greene King IPA Championship season when Jersey Reds are our welcome visitors on Saturday (1.30pm).
Apart from one ‘blow-out’ away victory in the 2018-19 season, the league games between the two clubs at the Alpas have, so far, been very close affairs. Hartpury went down 10-9 in somewhat disputed circumstances in January 2020, prior to which we had lost our first ever Championship home fixture, in September 2017, by the same one-point margin (19-20).
Jersey, like the Red & Blacks, have had mixed results this season and sit just two points and one place ahead of us in the table. Luckily for Hartpury, our final game of the 2021 season is an away ‘banker’ at Saracens…
Hartpury come into the match on the back of a comprehensive 52-26 defeat at the Cornish Pirates last Saturday. Despite a very bright opening, in which Ben Foley crossed for his sixth try of the season, troubles at the scrum and an inability to stop a powerful Pirates’ drive, combined to undermine a performance that, otherwise, had some good points.
“We started the game very well, but it all came down to the set-piece in the end,” said Hartpury Defence Coach, Rhys Oakley (pictured, in his playing days, as skipper of the 2016-17 ‘unbeatables’).
“Looking back, we had a very young team out last week with a 22 year-old making his first start in the front row and two 19 year-olds in the back five. They hadn’t previously experienced that kind of weight coming through in both the scrum and the drive, from a really good and seasoned Championship pack.”
“Having said that, they’ll learn from the experience and they have now got a much better idea of what is required at this level.”
“It’s not impossible to defend the drive. We probably needed to defend in the air a bit better, and also to try a limit some of their line-out options, for instance forcing them to throw to the front, where we know it’s harder to drive from. We’ve certainly worked on a few things for this week.”
“Also there were a couple of occasions when we just needed to ‘stay in the fight’ a bit longer – but that is just something that comes with a little more belief and experience.”
Away from the scrum and drive, Hartpury had defended well against a very good side.
“In our previous league game, against Coventry, we hadn’t defended well and allowed them to run through us a bit too easily,” said Oakley.
“We worked on that and tried out a few new things in our (behind closed doors) game against Bristol, where we stood up really well.”
“We carried that into the Pirates match and our phase play defence was actually very good – we had plenty of turn-overs at the tackle and looked pretty solid. It’s a question of putting all that together with a better set-piece and keeping our attack going well.”
“Our attack hasn’t been too much of an issue. We’ve got some dangerous players with the ball and we play with a shape that will cause most teams problems. We need to focus on better ball retention, because if we can get past five phases more often we will score points against anyone in this league.”
What does Oakley expect from Jersey?
“If they’ve watched the Pirates game – and they will have – they will almost certainly want to target the set piece as a means of racking up the penalties and then looking to get in the drive, in the red zone, to push us over. They’ll come hard and tight with the forwards and look to bully us.”
“You won’t be surprised to hear that we’ve been looking at some ways to defend better against that and repel anything that Jersey have got to offer.”
Saturday will be the first time that the players will have played in front of any sort of crowd this season, home or away, as the easing of restrictions mean that the club will be able to allow spectators into Alpas. The numbers will be relatively small, but Oakley expects the players to benefit from the added atmosphere.
“We’ve already seen from the games which have been televised this week – such as the Bristol and Gloucester game, where the atmosphere was outstanding – how much difference having a crowd cam make,” he said.
“Having a bit more normality will be good, and the players will get a boost from knowing that their families and friends are watching.”
I’m sure that a bit of home support will help raise the performance levels.”
The Hartpury squad will be named at noon on Friday, although there were no new significant injuries arising from the Pirates match.