Hartpury went down to defeat in the opening fixture, away to promotion favourites and last season’s finalists, Ealing Trailfinders, last Saturday, but anybody who witnessed the game will have recognised that they made it difficult for the Londoners to play their normal, free-flowing rugby and were the better side for a big chunk of the second half.
This weekend sees a different challenge for the Red and Blacks, but one that they have found no less difficult to deal with during the four-season stay in the Championship, as the Cornish Pirates visit the Alpas for the first time since December 2018.
Their absence is entirely down to the effects of the covid pandemic – the fixture in the 2019-20 season was cancelled, along with the entire final few weeks of the season, while in last season’s shortened format there was only a trip to Penzance in the schedule.
On that day, almost three years ago now, Hartpury lost 29-36 in a Championship Cup match and that is as close as they have come to beating the Pirates – the scores were level as the clock passed 80 minutes before Robin Wedlake squeezed into the corner for a last-gasp winner,
Other than a 6-0 home win in the mud for the Pirates in December 2019 – not a day for rugby – the matches between the sides have resulted in comfortable Cornish wins. The most recent example – last season, at the Mennaye – saw an implosion of the Hartpury scrum in the first half before they steadied the ship after the break. He damage was mainly done before half-time as the Pirates trotted out as 52-26 winners.
Assistant Coach, Rhys Oakley, was under no doubt about the task ahead of the team this weekend, but was quick to look back at last weekends display, at Ealing, as a source of optimism.
“We were disappointed with the final result,” he said.
“We genuinely felt, before the game, that we had a chance of going there and causing an upset against the best team in the league.”
“We’d had pre-season run-outs against Worcester, Bristol and Ospreys which had all gone, in the main, pretty well, so we were feeling hopeful.”
“In the end, it’s hard to say that you’ve done a good job when you’ve conceded 50 points, but it was very encouraging – particularly in the second half – when we did manage to keep the ball for long periods, we were able to play on the front foot and we proved that we’ve got a drive that can score.”
“We know we can play at this level and it’s important that show that for more then twenty or thirty minutes in a game.”
“For instance, we had a referee on Saturday who was giving everything to the team that had ball. When we kept the ball in the second half, by eliminating the silly errors, suddenly the penalties were going our way and Trailfinders were the team under pressure.”
Regarding this coming Saturday, Pirates pose a similar scale of challenge to Ealing. Has there been any change in approach?
“We’re obviously going to have to address the maul, because we know that’s a big strength of theirs. We’ve worked hard in training to create a plan for that and now it’s about execution.”
“It’s also about stopping their momentum at source and protecting the gain line, limiting their opportunities to play in our 22.”
And finally, when we do have the ball, making sure we hold onto it, playing in the areas of the pitch that we want to play in and putting our pressure onto them.”
Pirates opened the season with a 33-18 home win over Richmond, featuring a typically pragmatic first-half display in which the ball was driven regularly and hard inside the visitors 22. It should be fascinating to see how the Red & Blacks counter this threat on Saturday.
Hartpury sustained more than a few bumps and bruises in the Ealing game, leaving a few question marks over selection for Saturday.
Definitely out is open-side Xavier Hastings, who had started brightly at Trailfinders before being forced off inside the first quarter with an ankle injury. Replacement hooker, Ethan Hunt, is also likely to miss at least a couple weeks with damaged ribs.
Hartpury were boosted this week with the arrival into training of sizeable Worcester Warriors lock forward, James Scott and also the news that young Bristol Bears and England U20 winger, Deago Bailey, is now available on dual registration. Also one or two of the players who picked up knocks in pre-season are now at a point where they will be considered for a return, such as the versatile Charlie Foley.
“We’re in a good place squad-wise,” said Oakley, “and it’s nice to have some strength in depth in key areas.”
The squad for the game will be announced at noon on Friday. Saturday’s game will kick off at 2.30pm.