If we’re being honest, we didn’t get all that close to Rosslyn Park in either of the encounters during our debut season in League 1, with the Londoners being one of three teams to perform the ‘double’ over us. The others were eventual champions Ealing and, more surprisingly, Wharfedale – although the latter record was somewhat rectified when we visited Yorkshire a fortnight ago.
Defeats by 10-31 (home) and 11-36 (away, pictured) were reasonable reflections of the relative performances as Park’s pragmatic approach proved to be enough to disrupt what appeared to be, particularly in the away fixture, strong Hartpury selections.
However, a few things have changed this season. Hartpury certainly seem to have a harder, more abrasive edge to their game which has been wedded to a set-piece that has performed well in virtually every outing.
Additionally, both defence and discipline are much improved. The opening match at Hull aside, only two teams have passed 20 points against the College (both games were subsequently won) and the total of 160 points conceded in 12 matches is by some margin the best in the division.
On the other side of the coin, Park have yet to recreate the type of dominant form that they showed last season. Early signs were positive, as they started with four straight wins, but defeats to Blackheath, Fylde and, more unexpectedly, Loughborough and Blaydon, see Park standing in 5th place and 13 points off the lead.
Having yet to see them play, it is difficult to fully explain the reasons for this. Clearly there have been some changes in personnel, some permanent, some injury-related, although there are enough familiar names from last season for us to assume that the game plan probably hasn’t changed dramatically. Shires, Bellamy, Bowley, Gash (twice) and Ellis (thrice) all crossed the whitewash versus the College last season and all continue to be involved this.
Another change at Park is in the playing surface. Gone will be the dry, rather dusty track that we saw last March, now replaced by a state-of-the-art rubber crumb – at least one thing that will be familiar to the Hartpury team, who train on a similar surface frequently.
Everything looks set for a tough, intriguing encounter and real test of whatever aspirations Hartpury have towards playing at a higher level. The College, with a number of powerful, direct runners, would now appear to have the necessary weapons to 'fight fire with fire’ as far as Park are concerned, but the hosts will know that another defeat on Saturday, if not terminal, will represent a major setback to their own promotion hopes. As such, we can expect to meet a team 100% focused on getting the win…
In other games, second-placed (but level on points) Richmond will also be playing on a new artificial pitch when they travel to Loughborough, looking for win that will take them clear at the top if Hartpury stumble. Blackheath (3rd) will surely be hoping that they can put daylight between themselves and visitors Fylde before the last minute of the game. Also in contention, Esher will fancy their chances at Henley, who have now lost six matches in succession.
At the other end of the table, Cinderford will be viewing the visit of Blaydon as a game that they have to win if they are not going to have to rely on the last-ditch heroics of the previous season and Wharfedale will see long-distance travelers Plymouth as an opportunity to bounce back from a run of poor results, if not performances.
Ampthill reportedly have injury problems ahead of their renewed relationship with Ionians. Both sides were promoted from League 2 North last season and have had decent starts at this level, although Amps will be keen to end a run of three losses. Coventry, against the evidence of their early season results, could be back in the promotion picture if they can fashion a win at DMP and teams above them slip up.