Hartpury travel to new Championship leaders

For the second time in three weeks, Hartpury University will face the challenge of a match against the Championship leaders this Saturday.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will realise that this is a different league leader, Doncaster Knights having taken over at the top based on a narrow away win at Richmond last time out, combined with a very surprising home defeat for Ealing Trailfinders to Bedford Blues. 

Hartpury supporters will remember that we comfortably beat the Blues at their home ground less than three weeks ago, subsequent to which they were ‘nilled’ by the Knights in their own visit to Castle Park. 

So to go and win, with a bonus point, at Vallis Way – apart from being a very good performance – just shows how competitive the Championship has become this season.

The top four clubs are separated by just four points, although the Trailfinders and the Cornish Pirates both have the advantage of games in hand.  Hartpury lie in fifth and will want to remain competitive over their final four league fixtures to ensure the best-ever finish to a Championship campaign.  We have already equalled our highest points total at the level.

That job has been made just a little bit harder by the news that scrum-half, Toby Venner, will be at the Bristol Bears for the remainder of the season, as was announced earlier in the week.  Venner has been in incredible form for the Red & Blacks since returning from injury in November, averaging a try a game.  We wish him every success.

Last week’s match – a physical encounter with Jersey – has also taken its toll.  Prop Conor Maguire needs to follow concussion protocols before a return to play, while flanker Harry Short joins full-back George Simpson (who was injured in training prior to the match) in nursing a rib problem.

Hartpury will announce the squad for Doncaster tomorrow.

The Knights, one of the full-time professional clubs in the Championship that might harbour thoughts of a Premiership future, had a less than convincing start to the season.

Two defeats in the opening three games were followed by narrow wins over Jersey and Ampthill.  They visited the Alpas in Round 8 and were 12-0 down before eventually winning 15-20.  Notably, they themselves beat Ealing, at home, in the following week.

Since, they have slipped up once – away at title rivals, Cornish Pirates – but  have won every other match, including an impressive result in Jersey.

Looking ahead to the game, Head Coach Mark Cornwell said, “They’ve obviously got their act together – they’re well-organised and they’ve got a strong all-round game.”

“Like most Championship sides they have a good, physical pack and set-piece, but they are not afraid to play some rugby with a good attack shape.”

“They’ve got a few players that we know very well.  Sam Graham played for us on many occasions and is an excellent back-row forward, while former Hartpury students such as Maliq Holden, Joe Margetts and George Edgson are all very much in the first team picture and are doing well there.”

Former Hartpury College and University prop, Joe Wrafter, is also with the Yorkshire side, but will be suspended for Saturday’s fixture.

“Knights are clearly going to be challenging this season, although they weren’t at their best against Richmond last week.  Then they go and win the game from 80 metres out, across 20 or 30 phases with the clock in the red – we’ve had a good look at that this week!”

“They knew they had been in a game when they came to us in November.  We started very well, but we had 20 minutes of utter madness before half-time, during which they scored three tries and which cost us the match.”

Hartpury go into Saturday on the back of a very good display against Jersey last week, albeit in another match that was to end in frustration, as has been the case more than once this season.

“Jersey did exactly what we thought they would do, but we made some errors in an otherwise strong performance.  I’m not going to single out individuals, as the boys have played well in the past few matches, but some of the points that we gave away were very avoidable.”

One player that Cornwell was happy to talk about was winger Sam Smith, whose performance on Saturday yielded a personal try and a hand in at least a couple of others.

“He’s been very consistent this season without necessarily getting the rewards that his performances have deserved,” he said.

“On Saturday he supported the ball carrier very well, he finished a good try which was set up by Jimmy Williams and he set up Ben Foley for the last try off a really well-executed first phase move.”

“He runs very good lines and he’s the sort of lad who listens, never moans, gets on with his job and works hard for the team.  He was a stand-out performer on Saturday.”

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