Head Coach, Mark Cornwell, is upbeat ahead of tonight’s Hartpury University RFC pre-season fixture with the Ospreys, having presided over almost three months of preparation at the Gloucestershire club.
The extended period is a result of this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, which has affected the calendars of both Premiership and Championship teams for the 2019-20 season. Hartpury will start with three Championship Cup fixtures before the serious business of league rugby commences in mid-October.
“It’s been long!” Cornwell said. “We got back in early June so it will be a relief for the players to finally get involved in a game.”
“We’re still about six weeks away from our first league fixture, so it’s a very unusual start to the season. Having said that, it’s meant that we’ve had the chance to get a lot of work into the boys – a lot of fitness and a lot detail – meaning that we’re in a far better place than we were at this stage last year.”
“We feel that we’ve got a lot more quality in the squad this year and that extra time that we’ve had with them should really pay dividends.”
“As you can imagine, the players are chomping at the bit to get involved in some action.”
Facing the Ospreys in West Wales – the game will be played at The Gnoll, home of Neath RFC – will be no small challenge, even without their contingent of Japan-bound Wales international stars. However, at this early stage, Cornwell is far more concerned with the performance than the outcome.
“We’ve moved a lot of players into the squad and a big part of that is looking at who works best with who – how each of the little units within the team are clicking the best in terms of player combinations.”
“We’ve got to be looking for boys who are able and willing to meet the physical challenge – because any team going down to Wales is going to be tested in that respect – but also who can put into practice, in match-day conditions, what we’ve been working on in the past three months.”
In terms of those units, Hartpury are widely changed almost every aspect of the team – second row, back row, half-backs and three-quarters. What has Cornwell seen in his new-look squad that makes him optimistic for the weeks and months ahead?
“In the pack we’ve got two or three new lock forwards, so we’ve been doing a lot of work with coaches Wayne Thompson and Rhys Oakley around our set-piece. Also, we have some fresh faces in the back row and we’ve been working hard with those guys to understand what we want our shape to be in both attack and defence.”
“We’ve got a brand new nine/ten combination and, again, we want to see how those guys are going to gel and how they will work together to get us into the right parts of the field and call the right shots.”
“We’ve had two years now of learning the ‘Championship way’. Teams are far better organised than in the National Leagues and defences are all over you – getting over the try-line has been something that we’ve found difficult on occasions.”
“As a result of bringing in players of better quality, and also with the sprinkling of loan and dual-registration players that we will have, we feel that we’re getting much closer to having the sort of squad that we need to go out and score the points that will win us matches.”
“As always, we won’t have the luxury of taking six or seven games to gel once the serious business starts. That means that the remaining weeks of pre-season and those initial three Championship Cup games are going to be vital in ensuring that we’re fully prepared once the league campaign starts.”
Tonight’s squad will include a number of players from the university squad that plays in the “BUCS Super Rugby” competition and it seems likely that, as in recent seasons, there will be plenty of opportunities for break-through performances in 2019-20.
“Of course, when it comes to Championship rugby, results are always going to be paramount,” said Cornwell. “But we’re also incredibly focused on the player development programme that we have here and getting the boys to a position where they can bridge that gap between student rugby on a Wednesday and the Championship at the weekend.”
“This game is a good example. We’re taking around a dozen players who are current students, or newly-graduated, down to Neath with us and they will all get some game time.”
“We’d also expect a few of them to be on duty for our first Cup game at Doncaster Knights, which happens to be just a week before the first BUCS fixture of the season.”
Also involved at The Gnoll will be three players on dual-registration from Worcester Warriors – lock James Scott, prop Kai Owen and Winger Alex Hearle – and it is likely that young players from local Premiership clubs will feature strongly again for Hartpury this season.
“We’ve had our meetings with Gloucester, Bristol and Worcester,” said Cornwell. We work and talk with those clubs on a weekly basis and we’re happy with where we are with them and the players that we’ve been offered.”
Hartpury have no further formal pre-season fixtures planned, but will be involved in ‘competitive training’ against both Bristol Bears and Gloucester Rugby prior to the first Championship Cup fixture, at Doncaster, on September 21st.