Stern test awaits Hartpury in season opener

“Before the fixtures are announced, you’re hoping for winnable home game to get things off to a nice start,” said Hartpury Head Coach, Mark Cornwell.

“What do we get? Ealing away, of course…”

Ben Vellacott on his way to the try-line at Ealing in 2019 – courtesy LNC Images

Followers of Championship rugby will know that hurdles don’t get much bigger than a trip to Vallis Way, home of the Ealing Trailfinders, who have been consistent challengers for promotion ever since Hartpury were promoted to this level, four years ago.

Indeed, it has only been the relegated Premiership club in each season – such as recent European champions, Saracens – that have prevented the Trailfinders from achieving the long-held goal of wealthy backer, Mike Gooley.

With no relegation from the Premiership in the last season (or this) there are not many betting against the West Londoners topping the table this time around, despite the competing claims of Doncaster Knights and, potentially, the Cornish Pirates.

Ealing, as has become a regular feature of recent close seasons, have recruited freely over the summer, adding the likes of South Africans Dylan Smith, Len Massyn, Jan-Henning Campher and Garry Porter to an already strong squad.

“There’s no better time to play them,” said Cornwell.

“Would you rather wait until they are five or six games in and have established their patterns of play?”

“We know what the task in hand is.  They’ve had two pre-season games against Premiership opposition – in the shape of our near neighbours Gloucester – and they have been highly competitive in both.”

“What are we looking for from our team?  We’re definitely going to need to match their physicality and we can’t be over-awed by either the opposition or the occasion.

“We’ve been really happy with a lot of the things that we have done in pre-season and we need to bring all of that into this match.”

Referring to that pre-season and the improvements seen, how does Cornwell expect to see that manifested in performances over the next eight months?

“Firstly, we had to reflect on where we’ve been.  I have to be honest – and the rest of the coaches would agree – and say that last season was a big disappointment.”

“There were some aspects of our performances that were very, very poor and nowhere near where we need to be as a Championship club.  If nothing else, though, it’s given us plenty to work on.”

“We’ve quietly assembled a squad that, we feel, has players who can properly compete at this level and, in some cases, higher.”

“As usual with Hartpury, it’s young squad that is studded with some good experience.  Importantly, we’ve recruited some professional, Championship know-how in one or two key positions that we were definitely lacking last season.”

“We’re optimistic for this group.”

Returning to Saturday’s fixture, does Cornwell expect anything different from Ealing this year?

“You can analyse them on both sides of the ball and they’re good at everything they do,” he said.  “Essentially, with the money that they spend and the depth of squad that they have, they are a Premiership outfit.”

“The message to the players is simple.  We need to see what we did in the first half against the Ospreys and in last Friday’s behind closed doors session with Bristol Bears replicated for eighty minutes of playing time from 3pm on Saturday.”

“We need to be well-organised and show a really high work-rate against a side that will play from anywhere and will try to get on top of you in all aspects of the game.”

“We know that the boys understand the challenge ahead and what we are planning to do.  It all comes down to execution on the day.”

Hartpury have a couple of pre-season knocks to contend with.  Jack Tovey will be denied a run-out against his former club with a recurrence of a back injury that may keep him out for another couple of weeks, while another summer signing, Charlie Foley, took a heavy knock at Bristol that will keep him side-lined for Saturday.

The final team announcement will be made at noon on Friday.

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