Hartpury will be hoping that party poppers, rather than party poopers, tell the story of their trip to Plymouth Albion on Saturday as they look to wrap up the perfect Christmas present in Devon.
John Barnes’ men will be seeking a 16th successive bonus point win to head into the festive season with an unblemished National League One record so far, but if anyone can spoil the party, arguably Albion can.
Plymouth currently sit third in the league, only two places adrift but an astonishing 20 points behind Hartpury. Some surprising slip-ups, including against Fylde, have left them out of touch, but they are unbeaten at home this season and they have defeated second placed Birmingham Moseley at the Brickfields recently.
Hartpury Director of Rugby, John Barnes, said: “It’s the game before Christmas, Plymouth have a proud home record to defend and I’m sure there will be a big crowd. We know this could be one of our toughest games, particularly on their heavy pitch which will only have got worse with the rain we’ve had this week.
“They have a good, heavy pack, a strong scrum and line-out and they have some decent ball carriers too, including their talisman and number eight, Herbie Stupple. A lot of their players have come from Exeter, so we know we’re going to need to switch on to get the result.
“It’s a key weekend at the top end of the league with Moseley travelling to Coventry for a derby game and us facing Plymouth.”
While Plymouth saw off Blackheath by a 20-5 margin in their last outing, Hartpury head into the game on the back of a 62-12 win at basement side Macclesfield and they have the psychological upper hand, having seen off Plymouth 37-14 at Hartpury on September 10th (pictured, Adam Hastings scored a fine individual try).
“Macclesfield have lost a number of games by a score or two and they are a better team than their league position suggests,” added Barnes.
“They have a decent set piece and they made it hard work for us on a boggy pitch in the first half, but after they had a player sent off, we were able to turn the screw. We scored two tries in three minutes at the start of the second half and as they tired towards the end having done a lot of tackling, we found more and more gaps.
“Their backs defended well and made us work hard for our tries but what was most pleasing for us again as coaches was seeing the variety of types of try we scored.
“It has been an incredible first half of the season so far. If anyone had told me before we started in September that we’d have 15 bonus point wins in a row to be unbeaten in the first half of the campaign, I’d never have believed them.
“It’s fair to say we’ve played above even our own expectations and our success is testament to the commitment of everyone involved with the RFC, from the players to the coaches and the support staff.”
Hartpury could be without centre George Boulton for the Plymouth game after the heavy knock he took in the reckless challenge that earned Macclesfield the red card last weekend. He faces an injury assessment this week along with back row Jake Polledri (shoulder) and Steve Leonard (knee).
Hartpury could also be affected by A League fixtures on Monday with a number of their on loan players likely to be unavailable for selection.
Elsewhere in National One, Christmas-time brings lots of local match-ups. If history is anything to go by, the biggest of these will come at the Butts Arena where Coventry host old rivals, second-placed Birmingham Moseley in a game that could be key at the top of the table. There is also a derby in the North-East, where DMP travel to Blaydon.
Other games see Ampthill at home to Old Albanian, Cambridge hosting Rosslyn Park and Loughborough Students travelling to Ionians. Blackheath cross South London to play Esher, while Macclesfield have a relatively short trip up the M6, to Fylde.
Saturday’s fixture at Brickfields kicks off at 3pm. For those of you who will be in need of some fresh air and live rugby in the New Year, Hartpury’s first fixture of 2017 is at home to Esher on Saturday, 7th January (2.30pm), where we hope to still be playing as the only unbeaten team in the league!