After three consecutive defeats, which have seen a decent three wins from five record turn into a less impressive three wins from eight, Hartpury have two further games – away at Ampthill this Saturday and at home to Richmond on December 4th – to try and arrive at the half-way point of the 2021-22 season in reasonable shape.
If they can achieve a fourth – and maybe fifth – win from the opening 10 games, it will compare favourably with any previous Championship records (six wins from 22 in 17-18, seven wins from 22 in 18-19, four wins from 14 in 19-20 and two wins from 9 in 20-21).
The most recent outing was against a well-placed and full-time Doncaster Knights squad last Saturday. In retrospect, there was little to choose between the teams. Hartpury had a strong start with two early tries from powerful driving line-outs – a period in which the Knights gave up penalties seemingly at will – before hitting the self-destruct button for a 15-minute period leading up to half time.
The secondly half was evenly balanced, with both sides having opportunities but only a penalty kick each to show for it.
“We had built a lovely platform in the game, with two early scores, every decision going our way and us controlling territory. Even our early defensive sets were really good,” said Head Coach, Mark Cornwell.
“You get to 25 minutes and you’re really comfortable and you’re thinking ‘great’.”
“Then you get 15 minutes of total madness. It was as though someone had flicked a switch.”
“We conceded three tries in that time and you have to ask yourself why, suddenly, players are making error after error. And it wasn’t just one or two players, it seemed to spread through the whole team.”
“We gifted them those tries, after having been in total control of the game. It was ridiculous.”
“After we’d had a chance to re-group at half-time the game was back to parity and the second half was 3-3.”
In that second half, Hartpury had more than one opportunity to get their noses back in front, but failed to make anything of them.
“We had two or three chances to put Donny away, but we butchered them,” was Cornwell’s blunt analysis.
“You don’t have to be an international coach to know that we’re scoring tries one way (i.e. through the drive), but what we need to do is build on that platform and create more from our first phase attack and our phase play.”
“A lot of that comes from building pressure, which we’re occasionally able to do, but then things are breaking down and we’re not finishing.”
“A big part of that is decision-making. Currently, when we’re faced with two options we’re choosing the wrong one. As a result, we’re not able to punish teams when we get into the 22. It’s just not clicking at the moment.”
“We’re working on it and we’ll continue to work on it. It’s all a question of finding the right combinations and picking the right passes at the right time.”
Looking ahead to Saturday, Hartpury and Ampthill aretwo teams which have got to know each other very well, having played each other in five of the last eight seasons, first meeting in National 2 in 2013/14.
In the early the early days, Hartpury largely held the advantage, although all of the three Championship meetings, so far, have gone the way of the Bedfordshire side, with two largely forgettable encounters in 2019-20 being followed by something unforgettable last season.
“That was a crazy game which we ended up losing by 43-41, with five or six tries for both teams. It was another game which we threw away, having built a decent lead.”
“It’s going to be a tough challenge there this weekend – it always is. They’ve got a very decent squad, helped by good relationships with a number of Premiership teams, and a very good coaching set-up surrounding that.”
“We’ll be out on that back field and the weather forecast is looking interesting, so it’s going to be another tricky afternoon.”
One thing that Cornwell does not to worry about this weekend is availability. Players returning from injury and, more significantly, a number returning from Premiership Cup assignments, mean that he has a very full hand from which to select.
Sadly, one exception to that is exciting young prop forward Jonathan Benz-Salomon. Having been loaned to the Bristol Bears as injury cover and having played in two Premiership Cup matches, he was widely anticipated to be in line for a full Premiership debut next weekend. But a foot/ankle injury, sustained in action against the Warriors, has ruled him out for a number of weeks.
It is a sign of the change at the Alpas this season that only eight of the 23-man squad that took part in last season’s ‘crazy’ game will have any chance of being involved on Saturday.
The other major difference will be that last season’s game was played on a gloriously sunny and warm spring day – not in the forecast for this weekend! Hartpury will announce their squad on Friday.