Hartpury make the short trip to Coventry’s Butts Park Arena on Saturday (3pm), for the first away game in what will be 50 days since the successful visit to Ampthill.
Since then, home wins against both Richmond and Nottingham have seen the club produce its first three-win streak since the glory days of 2016-17 (it was extended to 30 matches then, of course, 28 of them with a bonus point) and a fourth is not impossible to envisage against a Coventry team who have had their share of ups and downs this season.
The Red & Blacks are currently enjoying their most productive season since arriving in the Championship in 2017 and, with a largely healthy squad to pick from – recent inactivity has seen a lot of injuries and covid cases cleared up – Head Coach, Mark Cornwell, feels that his team can to start to look up at the clubs above them, rather than over the shoulder, as has been the case in the past few seasons.
“This squad can definitely achieve more and that’s the challenge to the players,” he said.
“When we look at the teams above us, all of whom we have now played, we’ve only beaten Pirates, at home, so far.”
“If we want to fulfil the potential that we see in the squad, then it’s time that we started being more competitive against the stronger, full-time clubs.”
“There are aspects of our performances that we need to work on for that to happen, discipline still being the main one. All sides face periods of pressure, but a lot of what we give away is still needless.”
Before that, there is sure to be a tough challenge from Coventry, who have been something of a mixed bag this season with five wins and seven defeats, producing 26 points from 12 games, as opposed to Hartpury’s 31 from 11.
Due to the effects of the pandemic, it will be Hartpury’s first visit to the Butts Park Arena since 2019, since when an artificial surface has replaced an often quite heavy natural pitch.
Games with the Midlanders, home and away, both in National 1 and the Championship, have typically been close-fought affairs with less than a score between the teams on more than one occasion.
There was an exception last season, when Coventry played well to enjoy a comfortable win at the Alpas against a Hartpury team on a bit of a slide, but that balance was somewhat redressed in the 2021-22 home fixture back in early October, which the Red & Blacks took 18-7 with a tough, gritty display.
“Typically they are a strong, physical and well-organised side with an ability to score points,” said Cornwell. “Look at last season – we weren’t even at the races against them that day.”
“I’m pretty sure that Rowland and his squad won’t be happy with where they are at so far this season. Yes, they’ve had injuries and covid issues like most clubs and if they’re coming out of that I’m sure that they will be looking at Saturday and targeting it as a game that they can win and start to climb the table.”
“They’ve got the ability to do that and this is one of those games that will come down to performances on the day.”
Talking of performance, although results have been good, Cornwell is aware that his squad can still improve further, with the most recent home win over Nottingham being a good case in point.
“Good result, below par display” was his honest assessment.
“We looked like we hadn’t played for four weeks (a fact) and we started the game leaking penalties – again!”
“Elements of our game were good, but there were certain things that needed addressing and we’ve put pressure on the boys this week to respond to that. It’s a question of changing habits, which isn’t always easy.”
“You can’t invite any team in the Championship consistently into your own 22 – they are all good enough to take advantage. And once we get in front with a decent lead, we need to be better at shutting teams down.”
One player who was fully exempt from criticism was prop Totti Benz-Salomon, who produced a first start to remember at this level, having been a strong performer in university rugby this year.
“He was impressive,” said Cornwell. “To make a first start like that, not only at the scrum – where he played both sides during the game – but also in his carrying, his tackling, his offloads and his general physicality – it looked like he’d been playing at this level for years.”
“Both he and his brother (Jonathan, also a prop) have developed out of the BUCS program and we’re very excited about their futures.”
Even more remarkably, Benz-Salomon had tweaked a medial ligament after only 20 minutes or so of the Nottingham match, which will keep him out of Saturday’s trip, alongside co-captain JB Bruzulier and centre Jack Tovey, who are still not quite ready for a return.
Beyond that, Cornwell has pretty much a full deck to choose from and Hartpury will name their 23 on Friday at noon.