372 days will have elapsed since our last league action when Hartpury take to the Alpas Arena on Saturday afternoon (1.15pm kick off) for the opening fixture of the 2020/21 campaign, versus our friends from Richmond Rugby.
Whilst slipping to an eminently forgettable home defeat to a deserving Ampthill on February 28th last year, little did any of the 600 or so hardy souls who were there, in the rain, realise what was just around the corner.
Our next fixture, away at London Scottish in mid-March, was an early victim of the pandemic and, by the end that month, the ‘19/20 season was declared over.
False dawns have come and gone since then, but on Saturday – due in no small part to the absolute determination of the 11 clubs involved – Championship rugby returns!
This will be Hartpury’s fourth successive campaign at Tier 2 and it will be exciting to see how a new look squad goes about its business in this highly competitive league.
One of the star turns of last season, Seb Nagle-Taylor, has gone – ruled out of this campaign by injury and signed by neighbours, Gloucester Rugby, for next – along with some of the stalwart performers of our rise through the national leagues and the early Championship years. Will Tanner, Mike Flook, Des Merrey, Harry Cochrane and Mike Wilcox have all departed, as well as a number of more recent joiners.
In their place, Hartpury have recruited largely at the younger and less tested end of the spectrum, bringing in a number of players who are seeking to make their mark in the Championship, including many signed directly from, or recently out of, university rugby.
Saturday’s opponents are a club that have felt very ‘close’ to Hartpury, in terms of league standing, since the first meeting back in National League 2, almost 10 years ago.
Richmond were promoted in that season and Hartpury were to join them a couple of years later, before the process was repeated in National 1. The Londoners have since had the better of the Championship fixtures between the clubs (winning three out of four), but there has rarely been much between us in the table.
Neither club are among the Championship’s big spenders, but Hartpury defence coach, Rhys Oakley, is expecting nothing less than a full-on encounter at the weekend.
“Richmond have a game-plan which is fairly straightforward but also pretty effective,” he said.
“They know their way around rugby at this level and they know how to win games after a successful season in National 1. They are very direct and play with a good deal of accuracy.”
“They have a number of thoroughly willing runners and we know that there will be periods in the game when we will have to make our tackles.”
“Hopefully our lads have got the messages and we can perform as we have been doing in training this week. I do know that the boys feel confident that we can go out and do a decent job on Saturday.”
The Hartpury squad for Saturday’s opener will be announced at noon tomorrow – Friday, 5th March.
As announced earlier, supporters will be able to watch this – and all of Hartpury’s matches this season – via live-streaming at this link. Each game will cost £10 to view.