Not since three years ago, in their first season in National League 1, have Hartpury suffered back-to-back league defeats, but that does not seem to be unsettling Head Coach, Mark Cornwell, at this early stage in their Championship development.
“This season is not all about winning every game,” he said. “In the long term, it’s about us consolidating our position as a Championship team. From National One up to this league is a huge step.
It didn’t sit well with me, after the game on Saturday, that we had lost two on the trot. Nobody hates losing more than me. But I’m confident that we’ll come up with the performances and the victories that we’re looking for – it’s just a question of getting that first one.”
Cornwell, evidently, is still feeling the anti-climax of last Saturday’s one-point home loss to Jersey Reds.
“I’m very disappointed that we didn’t come away with the points, having been competitive throughout the game”, he said. “We controlled the first half-hour and then put in a really strong defensive display in the 10 minutes before half-time.
But – full credit to Jersey – they are very experienced at this level and they found a way to win. They played a different game in the second half, kicking a lot more, which put pressure on our back three. We made a few mistakes and they were there to capitalise.
A high ball was dropped – three passes later they were in at the corner. The second try was off us playing on the halfway line – they intercept and score. Two tries which we gifted to them, rather than them creating a lot against us.
Dealing with the territorial licking battle that we have found ourselves in, particularly in the poor conditions that both games were played in, that is all part of the learning curve that we are on. I can already see improvements in the training that we’re doing.”
In what will be a season of many ‘firsts’, Hartpury take themselves to the new surroundings of Clifton Lane on Saturday, home to the Rotherham Titans.
Rotherham are a club that took well to league rugby on its introduction in the mid-80s, as a series of advances had them up to the second tier ahead of the 1996-97 season. They have been pretty much a fixture at this level ever since although two, albeit brief, forays into the Premiership were their reward for consistent success in the early 2000s.
Financial restraints have largely kept them out of the promotion picture since that time, although there were play-off appearances in both the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Last year saw them finish 11th, although the early demise of London Welsh ensured that there was never any likelihood of relegation.
Following a re-building of the squad over the summer, the current team is still looking to establish itself, as heavy defeats to both Nottingham and Doncaster in the opening two fixtures have shown. Neither side will contemplate coming away empty-handed at the weekend.
“Without question, it’s an important game,” said Cornwell.
“People will already be looking at the table and making assumptions about where teams will finish. We do not want to be seen as relegation candidates and it is essential that we get the win this weekend.
Despite the Titans’ start, Cornwell is not expecting anything other than a thorough test in South Yorkshire.
“Rotherham have had two forty point-plus defeats and I expect they’ve been through the mill at training this week. They will also know the importance of this game, so the pressure is on.
There are some big boys in their squad and they are quickly trying to find their feet. They are a proud club who have been at this level, and above, for many years – they are going to be a tough nut to crack.”
Given the strength of the opposition facing Hartpury this year, does the Head Coach feel tempted to change the way the club plays its rugby?
“We are looking to tighten up on certain aspects of our game – we’ve got to respect the level that we are playing at,” said Cornwell.
“But we’re not going to change our philosophy at all – we like to play attractive rugby. We have the skill sets in the squad to be able to do that and, when we do get the conditions to suit, we’ll always look to use the full width of the pitch. That won’t ever change.”
Saturday’s match kicks off at 2pm. For anybody planning the trip, the full address is Clifton Lane, Rotherham, S60 2SN.