The on/off part of the season is now over and there are five games in five weeks to end the 2015/16 campaign…
Mathematically at least, Hartpury – currently in second place and 10 points behind leaders Richmond – still have a chance of winning the title but a tough run-in, allied to recent inconsistency in both performances and results, ensure that the odds against this occurring remain long.
Three of the five remaining fixtures are at home where Hartpury have been strong, with the pre-Christmas defeat to Plymouth Albion still the only blot on the copybook. However visits by Richmond and Rosslyn Park (against the latter of whom Hartpury have yet to record anything other than defeat) mean that absolutely nothing will be taken for granted.
Add to that a trip to one of the league’s current ‘form’ teams, Plymouth Albion, in the penultimate week and it could be that the visit by Ionians, on 30th April, will just be an end of season knock-about.
All of which speculation might be regarded as being slightly disrespectful to this weekend’s opponents, Loughborough Students, against whom the College have found life fairly difficult in all of their National One encounters thus far.
Indeed, the ‘RFC’ endured what can best be described as a hammering on their last trip to Leicestershire back in November 2014, an evening of gloom brightened only by Mat Protheroe announcing himself with a glorious debut try in the closing minutes (pictured); 30-13 the final score to a Henry Taylor-inspired Loughborough.
Life has been a little more rewarding at home, but wins of 20-19 last season and 13-8 this were never games in which Hartpury looked particularly comfortable.
Loughborough’s current season has been fairly similar to last and, despite being in the lower reaches of the table for most of the year, they should have enough in hand to keep out of trouble – 12 points separates them and 14th-placed Wharfedale.
Within their eight wins, the standout result is unquestionably the 32-10 victory at Rosslyn Park although, in survival terms, more recent triumphs at Wharfedale and Blaydon were undoubtedly just as welcome. The home form has been patchy, with four wins from 12 outings, all at the expense of teams currently below them in the table.
At least the playing surface cannot be called into question as Loughborough are one of two teams to have installed a 3G surface for the start of this season. This will not provide them with any particular advantage against Hartpury however, who train on a similar pitch throughout each week.
There is no team news at this stage, although one player who will sadly be missing is outstanding back row forward Will Safe. A blow to the head in the last fixture left him with an enforced three week break and a gradual return to play that could hardly have come at a worse time, based on his immense contribution to the season so far.
Whatever team Hartpury put out, it seems certain that another close encounter lies in store at the weekend…
Richmond travel to Wharfedale and should return with the spoils, even if the Yorkshiremen are able to recreate the spirit and enterprise that they demonstrated on their recent visit to the Shire. Plymouth, currently third, face a tough trip to fourth-placed Ampthill and will presumably not be helped by the news that that their club is on the verge of administration – a situation that will presumably lead to some form of sanction, possibly in the form of a points deduction.
In a congested league (from second to fifth) the only other club with any potential to lift the crown, Blackheath, would hope to end their recent run of four narrow defeats when they entertain Ionians – the Humberside club themselves are not yet ‘out of the woods’ at the foot of the table.
Henley could be relegated this weekend if they fail to beat Coventry at Dry Leas and results elsewhere go against them, although Cinderford, courtesy of two bonus points at Coventry and their earlier home win over Fylde, could keep their faint hopes alive by beating Esher.
Fylde travel to Mowden Park in the remaining fixture.