Pride and disappointment might seem like strange companions, but both emotions were evident in the Hartpury dressing room after this hard-fought contest in the Bristol drizzle.
Pride, in a strong performance, was the initial reaction to a showing that saw Hartpury push Bristol – the bookmakers’ clear favourites for this year’s Greene King IPA Championship – all the way, but disappointment was an inevitable sentiment after a game in which Hartpury lefty empty-handed, despite having the better of events for significant periods.
It was hard to know what to expect from a fixture that matched two clubs from different rugby stratospheres – Bristol, a traditional rugby powerhouse, versus the upstarts from the north of the county who had smashed their way to nine promotions in 13 seasons on their way to the second tier.
In the end, logic did prevail, but not before the new-boys had given their hosts an almighty scare.
Hartpury came into the game in good shape. Pre-season, with two testing run-outs against Premiership opposition, had been instructive and a hamstring injury to winger Ed Sheldon was the only major drawback from three useful outings.
But whereas those games had been played in summer sunshine, this encounter was a reminder of the conditions that potentially lie ahead, with a persistent rain falling from unbroken leaden skies – circumstances that suited neither of these free-flowing sides.
Sheldon apart, Hartpury were able to name a strong selection, with strength in the pack allied to a back division that combined the experience of Luke Eves, Steve Leonard and Mike Wilcox with the pace and creativity of Harry Randall, Jacob Perry, Harry Cochrane and Elias Caven.
But it was the hosts who grabbed the early initiative, as Hartpury were slightly tentative in their first few minutes at this level. Former Wallaby, Luke Morahan, one of many high-profile Bristol signings for the new season, was put in by another international acquisition, Ireland’s Ian Madigan, before six minutes had elapsed.
Hartpury spilled the ball as they worked their way out from a defensive scrum and Madigan’s cross-field kick was perfect for winger Morahan to swoop over the line.
That early setback might have unsettled many sides visiting the Championship favourites, but Hartpury quickly established themselves in the game and, one or two alarms aside, began to enjoy their work.
There was still plenty of defending to do as former England winger Tom Varndell and the excellent Dan Thomas, once of this parish, tested the visiting rear-guard, but Hartpury were looking solid and well-organised.
The early signs were also good at the set-piece. The scrum was emerging as a source of strength while the lineout was holding its own, despite pressure from another former Gloucester man, lock forward Joe Latta.
Into the second quarter, Hartpury began to establish an attacking platform of their own. Penalties at both the scrummage and the breakdown were starting to come regularly and a series of excellent touch-finders from Perry had the hosts pinned back in their own half.
A historic moment arrived in the 26th minute. Hartpury’s lineout drive was causing problems for Bristol and the breakthrough eventually came when flanker Mat Gilbert was awarded the club’s first-ever Championship try, following a review by the TMO.
The red and blacks were on the front foot now and enjoying their best spell of the game as Bristol, under siege, began to feel the heat.
Perry slotted a penalty to have the visitors in front after Bristol prop Saone Tonga’uiha, a fresh replacement for the injured Ryan Bevington, was shown a yellow card and, as Hartpury renewed their assault, lock Sam Jeffries quickly followed him into the bin.
With Bristol down to 13 men, all of the action was in their 22 as Hartpury looked to capitalise. Gilbert thought that he had grabbed a second when another drive went over (pictured, top) and, with Bristol repeatedly being penalised at the scrum, it seemed only a matter of time before referee O’Grady took them under their own posts.
However, it was Bristol who were awarded the final scrum penalty of the half and they were happy to leave the field only one point adrift.
If Hartpury had almost taken control of the game in the second quarter, then they lost in in the third and it was that old enemy, indiscipline, that was their undoing.
They were quickly back in arrears after Madigan landed a simple penalty in the 43rd minute and extended the lead with another kick shortly afterwards, following more good work in attack from Dan Thomas.
Young winger Elias Caven was agonisingly close to Hartpury’s second try in the 50th minute, just failing to get a convincing touch to his kick ahead (pictured, above), but Madigan stroked over two further penalties to put Bristol 19-8 to the good in an increasingly scrappy second half.
Thomas, so often a stand-out performer for Hartpury in the past, almost grabbed a second try for his new club with two minutes remaining but, when the ball was recycled, replacement front row forward Max Crumpton was able to bundle over for the score.
There was a nice moment at the death for Bristol boy Mike Flook, when the replacement loose-head was credited with Hartpury’s second score as the pack rediscovered their drive, but James Williams’ conversion was the final act in a slightly unsatisfactory second half.
Few, except within the squad itself, had expected anything other than a Bristol win and the final score of 26-15 is clearly no disgrace. However there was a lingering sense, post-match, that this was a game in which Hartpury could, and should, have taken away more than the respect of the Bristol crowd and those watching on Sky Sport.
Next week sees the first home fixture of the campaign when Jersey Reds are the visitors to the Gillman’s Ground. That game will kick off at the usual time of 2.30pm on Saturday, 9th September.
Bristol Rugby: J Williams, Morahan (Try 6), Hurrell, Pisi, Varndell, Madigan (Cons 7, 78. Pens 42, 45, 53, 75), R Williams; Bevington, Harris-Wright, Faletau, Jeffries, Latta, Luatua, Thomas, Haining. Replacements: Crumpton (Try 78), Tonga’uiha, Glendall, Crane, Glynn, Searle, Protheroe.
Hartpury RFC: Wilcox, Cochrane, Leonard, Eves, Caven, Perry (Pen 38), Randall; Murphy, Tanner, Harden, Edwards, Oakley, Langley, Gilbert (Try 26), Dyer. Replacements: Stratford, Flook (Try 80), Heard, Craig, Grieve, Williams (Con 80), Boulton.
Referee: Matthew O’Grady