On Saturday – at the slightly earlier than usual time of 1.30pm – Hartpury and the Jersey Reds will resume a relatively new rivalry that stretches back to 2017. On that occasion, which started in a deluge of biblical proportions, the Reds were the first-ever Championship visitors to the Alpas, running out as 20-19 winners.
Nick Carpenter and Mat Gilbert scored first half tries for the hosts, before the Reds took control with a strong second period. A late score from Elias Caven made things interesting, but Hartpury had to settle for a narrow loss and a single point.
Actually, to call it a rivalry is possibly a case of gilding the lily, as Jersey progress in the fixtures – home and away – has been largely serene.
Apart from that opening close encounter – and a subsequent one-point win in January 2020, gifted by a late howler by referee George Selwood – Jersey have comfortably won in Gloucestershire.
Games on the island have, if anything, been slightly more competitive and have produced Hartpury’s only victory in the series so far. An ice-cool Sam Leeming kick in the spring of 2019 ended another nail-biter, 7-10, which went a long way to helping to preserve Hartpury’s Championship status that year.
Leeming is now at the Reds, via a season at Bedford, and may play some part on Saturday, although the number 10 shirt has been more regularly worn by the young Tom Pittman, a Bath University graduate, in recent weeks.
Jersey’s season has been typically solid. Comfortable wins over London Scottish and Bedford were followed by a narrow defeat at high-flying Doncaster and points, possibly, dropped in a home draw with Ampthill.
Two more wins followed, including 32-17 over Hartpury in the reverse fixture, before a highly creditable performance at Vallis Way saw them go down by less than a single score to leaders Ealing.
Since then results have been somewhat mixed, a good home win over the Pirates, being off-set by less satisfying performances at Bedford and at home to the Knights. Most recently, however, things have been settling down again, nicely, and the Reds come into Saturday with three straight ‘W’s under their belt – victories at Ampthill and Nottingham away, either side of a home win versus Richmond.
Jersey sit third in the current table, two places and 12 points ahead of Hartpury, having played the same number of games.
“Jersey are always a big challenge,” said Head Coach, Mark Cornwell.
“They play quite a low-risk, forward-orientated, game. They’ll want to squeeze us at the scrum for penalties and kick to the corners. They’ll want to establish a lead and then press to make us play from deep and pick up on any mistakes we make. You know what’s coming, it’s just a question of stopping it.”
“We’ll need to be on point at the set-piece and make sure that we’re not giving daft penalties away.”
“The good news is that our discipline has improved in the last couple of matches. We’ve also shown a lot of ambition and confidence in the way we play.”
“In our away fixture against Reds we weren’t great for 50-60 minutes, but in the last quarter we started to play and scored a couple of good tries.”
“We’ll continue to play with ambition this week. We like to move the ball around and the boys seem to be responding to that.”
There were plenty of signs in the last two fixtures, a resounding win at Bedford Blues followed by a very decent performance, albeit in defeat, to league leaders Ealing, of that ambition and confidence translating into outcomes.
Discussing the Ealing performance, Cornwell said, “You don’t need me to tell you that in the first 20 minutes we got blown away.”
“They were very direct, very physical. We made errors and they capitalised. There were a few things, defensively, that we’d worked on that we didn’t get right and that was frustrating.”
“It’s not what you want to be doing against the side that are top of the league.”
“And then it’s like somebody has said to us ‘what are you doing here? Let’s get hold of the ball, let’s play and let’s put them under pressure.’”
“Then the ambition was there, the execution was good and we were causing them some stress.”
“They knew they’d been in a game by the end and – however good they are – they knew that we’d stretched them. We actually ‘won’ the last 55 minutes 14-5.”
Health-wise, the recently-impressive Jack Tovey picked up a head knock that will keep him out of Saturday’s game, although that is counter-balanced by the return to fitness of Charlie Foley, missing since the warm-up at Coventry three games ago.
Hartpury will name their 23 at noon tomorrow.