For the second time this season, Hartpury are lighting up Friday night at the Alpas Arena this week, with London Scottish the visitors (7.45pm).
It means a short week, but also an early opportunity to bounce back after the frustration of last Saturday’s 1-point defeat at Coventry, in which a last-gasp victory was, first, snatched and then snatched away.
The Exiles have endured a difficult season. Having decided not to participate in the covid-shortened Championship campaign played from March-May 2021 and a certain amount of player turnover, there was always this possibility and the current table tells its own story, with Scottish sitting bottom of the pile.
However, some early maulings – particularly a 100-point defeat at Ealing Trailfinders – have been replaced by more competitive performances since the beginning of November, with narrow defeats to the Pirates and Bedford, both strong clubs, either side of a home win versus Coventry.
In the reverse fixture at the Richmond Athletic Ground, Hartpury were able to record the biggest win of our Championship era to date (19-62), but not before Scottish had taken the lead with a well-worked try and then used the power of their set-piece to keep very much in touch at the break.
With former Hartpury connections Harry Wilson, Alex Gibson, Nick Selway, Ehize Ehizode, Angus Southon and Sam Baker in their squad, plus former Cinderford three-quarter Leo Fielding, they will have plenty of men with an incentive perform at the Alpas, if fit and selected.
“Obviously, Scottish have had a fairly difficult time of it this season,” said Mark Cornwell, Hartpury’s Head Coach. “We’ve been there ourselves and we know what it’s like.”
“When you’re a club in that situation you’ve just got to keep your heads down and keep working.”
“I dare say we will start the game as favourites, given the scenario, but we all know that will mean nothing if we don’t execute well and play to our potential”.
“Scottish showed us at their place that they’ve got a very useful pack and they’ll definitely want to come at us via the set piece.”
“There’s a lot of recent Hartpury player connections there, which should add a bit of spice.”
As mentioned, the Red & Blacks come into Friday’s match on the back of a gut-wrenching last-kick defeat to Coventry on Saturday, when a win would have been four ‘on the bounce’ for the first time in the club’s Championship history.
The reality, as Cornwell sees it, is that a good second-half effort was undermined by a sub-standard first.
“People say to me ‘you lost in the last minute’, but I don’t see it that way,” he said. “When you analyse the game, we hardly fired a shot in the first half.”
“Of course it’s very disruptive when you lose important players early on (Hartpury were three down within 15 minutes, including a player injured in the warm-up) but you have to take that in your stride and cope.”
“Early season against Pirates, I think we’d lost the whole back row before half-time and we played half the game with a hooker on the flank, but that day we were able to come through and win well, so it can be done.”
“The good thing at Coventry was that the players who came on as earlier than expected replacements were all able to contribute to a really good 15-man effort in the second half.”
“If we play that game to our plan, in the first half as we did in the second, we win the match. Simple.”
It is likely that none of the players involved in those early injuries will be available for Friday’s fixture, although in the case of Charlie Foley and skipper, Will Crane, it is expected that the absences are not likely to extend to more than 2-3 weeks. Loose-head Conor Maguire may take a little longer to return.
Hartpury will name the squad for the London Scottish game at noon on Thursday and Hartpury fans are recommended to keep their eyes peeled for a fairly interesting announcement. We’ll say more tomorrow.
Finally, with England’s initial squad for the Guinness Six Nations now known, we asked Cornwell for his opinion of the FOUR former Hartpury students and players involved.
“I would love to see Harry Randall get a start,” he said.
“Would I pick him? Yes.”
“I like the way he plays and the fact that he offers the tempo that England need to play at. He and Marcus Smith together would be genuinely exciting.”
“Will Eddie pick him or go for the 100-plus cap man? I’m not sure.”
“At some point Eddie has to think about who is his next preferred 9. I like Danny Care, also, but it doesn’t look as though we’re headed back in that direction. The most similar player to him is Harry Randall.”
“Of the other old boys that we have involved, I’d have thought that Ellis Genge, Jonny Hill and Jonny May have all got a good chance of starting.”
Don’t forget – Hartpury team news tomorrow at noon.