“You know what’s coming, but it’s still hard to stop…” Cornwell previews Pirates

After the postponement of last Saturday’s meeting with league-leaders Ealing Trailfinders, Hartpury now face a task of similar, if not greater, magnitude with a trip to third-placed Cornish Pirates scheduled for Boxing Day.

It is a difficult fixture on many levels. There was little realistic prospect of taking the players away from their families on Christmas Day, meaning that all of the 450-mile round trip will be undertaken ‘on the day’.

Historically – and particularly at The Mennaye – the Pirates are tough to beat. Certainly it was a task that had been beyond Hartpury, at any venue, until very recently and – as Saracens and Ealing have both found out in 2021 – even the best teams find life difficult in Penzance.

Nor will our hosts on Boxing Day need any added incentive. Not only are they fully engaged in the battle for top spot and possible promotion (they have the same playing record as Ealing, only trailing as a result of earning three fewer bonus points) but they will have fresh memories of a chastening Week 2 defeat at the Alpas.

Hartpury recorded their first ever win over the Cornishmen back in September, picking up a 5-point, 37-18 victory and sending the Pirates home empty-handed – one of only two pointless games for them this season (the other being a 15-5 defeat at second-placed Jersey).

“I think we caught them a bit cold that day,” said Hartpury Head Coach, Mark Cornwell.

“I’m not taking anything away from the lads – that was an excellent performance – but I believe that the Pirates team we face on Boxing Day will be a million miles away from that side.”

“They’ve got their act together. In fact, the week after we beat them they were beating Ealing, and since then they’ve only lost one other game.

“They’re very well-drilled and they’re good at what they do.”

“We found out last year how tough it is to go down there and get anything. It’s going to be a really tough battle on a tough surface – the boys are expecting it to be harder than the Ealing game, had it gone ahead.

“They have a very strong set-piece. You have to have that in the Championship, but theirs is exceptional. Whenever they get close they’ve got a very strong driving lineout. It’s physical, it’s direct and it’s low-risk. It’s all about controlling territory and they do it very, very well.”

Not that Cornwell is writing off his side’s chances, despite a 50-point defeat in the corresponding fixture last season.

“If you compare the squad that we’ve got now, or even just the pack, to the players that we had available last season, then it’s a very different picture,” he said.

“That doesn’t automatically mean that we will produce a different performance – it’s up to us to make it different – but certainly in that game we had some inexperience in a number of key positions. The pressure and the power that the Pirates were able to bring that day was something that we found difficult to cope with.”

“If you look at the pack we’ve got now – and the league table reflects this – we’re a different proposition ourselves. Last season we really struggled to get anything going, whereas this this year we’ve got a successful lineout drive of our own.”

“But the task isn’t any different – you know what’s coming but it’s b****y hard to do anything about it!”

All clubs are operating in difficult times at the moment, with the heightened threat of the new omicron variant causing player isolations and a number of match postponements in recent weeks. Hartpury’s missed fixture with Ealing was one of two matches off last weekend and the Boxing Day fixture between Nottingham and Richmond is already a casualty.

“We’ve been able to train as normal this week and our players are currently submitting daily test results,” said Cornwell. “Fingers crossed, we’ll be able to name a decent squad to go to Cornwall.”

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