With just one defeat – by a single point, to a last-minute penalty – in their past six RFU Championship fixtures, Hartpury come into Saturday’s re-arranged home match with Ealing Trailfinders in good spirits, if still undergoing something of an injury and availability crisis which has deprived them of a number of important players in key positions.
The league-leaders represent an opportunity for the Red & Blacks to test themselves against the very best that this division has to offer and this fixture will be followed by a visit from the Jersey Reds – currently fourth, but only three points off the top of the table – and a trip to Doncaster Knights, now in second place and just one point behind Ealing although, like Jersey, having played two games more.
This is the sort of sequence that Hartpury might have faced with significant trepidation in previous seasons, but now – sitting fifth and with the majority of their matches having produced victories – will welcome this game as a real test of this year’s improved form.
Despite having stuttered in two away games during the autumn – sustaining defeats at the Pirates and the Knights – Ealing will still remain as many people’s pick to finish top of the pile in the spring and, with their most realistic challengers, the Cornish Pirates (three points behind with the same number of matches played), currently scheduled to visit West London on the last day of the regular season, they look to be the outfit most likely to have the choice of investing in a Premiership future.
Although suffering a number of covid-related postponements in December and January – including the ‘original’ of Saturday’s upcoming clash, caused by cases in the Hartpury camp – Ealing’s recent results have been consistent, culminating in a 47-5 home win against an improving Coventry two weeks ago.
Against this, Hartpury will come into the game on the back of a first ever win at the Bedford Blues last weekend and a performance which, somewhat unexpectedly given the level of absentees, raised the bar even above the early-season home win over the Cornish Pirates.
We asked Head Coach, Mark Cornwell, which of those two victories, had given him the greatest personal satisfaction.
“Pirates were always like a monkey on our back, as we’d never got any sort of result against them, home or away, in our four previous seasons of Championship and cup rugby,” he said.
“On the day that we played them here we managed to shut them down and never really let them get going, which was very much a big part of the plan for that match.”
“As a coach, you are trying to produce a team that can play for 80 minutes. How often, even this season, have we played well for an hour only to be undermined by 20 minutes of madness or indiscipline?”
“Saturday , at Bedford, was one of the first times in the Championship that we’ve managed to produce the levels that we want for the full game, with energy high, a really reduced error count and penalty count – it just flipped everything on its head.”
“It was refreshing for us as coaches to see what the boys can actually achieve. Hopefully, now, they will really start to believe in themselves and what they can produce as a squad, because we were completely dominant at Bedford.”
Having given the team full licence to play at Goldington Road, how does the squad now approach the challenge of the Trailfinders, a team can that punish any side that is even slightly loose against them?
“We trust that the boys – off the back of last week’s performance – will come into the game with good confidence and if we can dictate the pace of the game and control a good share of the possession, then we might see some of the marginal calls and situations going our way.”
“After any win, people can say that you had some luck or you got the rub of the green, but you’ve got to be in a position to create opportunities where things can go your way.”
“We are well aware that Ealing will be a different challenge to Bedford and we want to get that across to the players and we want them to think about what lies ahead this weekend. Ealing bring a big physical challenge into every game and you are playing a team that is top of the league and averaging close to 50 points scored per game.”
“Yes, we want to keep that confidence, but we know that if we play too loose or we are not fully concentrating or well-disciplined, then Ealing are a side that can quickly pile the points on you.”
“We will need to keep the energy and the positivity, but we will need to match their physicality and stop them building the platform for their game.”
“Plus, we’ve got Jersey Reds and the Doncaster Knights as our next two fixtures – those are all games against three of the current top four – so we might as well start trying to get it right on Saturday!”
Hartpury, who will name their squad at noon on Friday, are starting to see to some of the injury issues of the past couple of weeks clear up, meaning that there may be some selection headaches between the players that did so well at Bedford and some of the more established members of the squad.
One piece of player news that we can impart today is the signing of Irish prop forward Cronan Gleeson, recently a free agent after returning from a spell in Major League Rugby in the USA, and who’s earlier career involved spells at both Munster and Connacht. Gleeson is now available to Hartpury for the remainder of the season.