Hartpury duly completed the win required to clinch this season’s National One Championship and although, typically, it was not achieved without some drama, this was a day to consider the magnitude of the achievement rather than the detail of the performance.
Hartpury entered the league pyramid, as recently as 2004, at the bottom. Given the quality of player, and coaches, that the College attracts, it is perhaps unsurprising that progress was made. But to find the club contemplating life in the Championship – just one level below the big boys – in just thirteen seasons, is nothing short of breath-taking.
Along the way, players such as Jonny May, Tom Savage, Dan Robson, Ross Moriarty, Bazz Barrington, Andries Pretorius, Billy Burns, Dan Norton and countless others have been nurtured in the College’s elite environment and worn the Red & Black.
This season, things have gone to a different level. In winning the league with five matches still to play, Hartpury are undefeated and have missed out on just two of the bonus points available to them, amassing an astonishing total of 1214 points scored against 432 conceded. That’s an average of almost 50 points a game, in the semi-professional third tier of English rugby.
The players, the coaching team – led by John Barnes and Mark Cornwell – the support staff and all the others who work so hard behind the scenes, deserve enormous credit for what they have achieved.
The next challenge is to shoot for an unbeaten season – unprecedented at this level – before taking stock and preparing for yet another step up.
Back to Saturday’s game, which was not without incident. At one point in the second half, the league leaders found themselves reduced to 12 players, as a series of yellow cards depleted their ranks.
That they not only survived without conceding a score through some gutsy defence but, once restored to 13, produced a sensational length-of-the-field solo try through lock forward Joe Batley, was a testament to the fortitude and class that they have shown all season.
The game was not the prettiest that they have produced in this campaign and much credit should go to a well-prepared Old Albanian team who, despite going quickly and decisively behind, never stopped searching for points of their own.
A well-taken first half treble from the quicksilver Mat Protheroe was enough to put them in control at the break. Protheroe was drafted in to cover for the absent Steve Leonard and reminded us of his quality with a man-of-the-match performance.
Robbie Shaw also got a start, after the late withdrawal of Ben Vellacott with a knock picked up in last week’s win at Rosslyn Park.
The pack showed just one change, Tim Brockett starting in place of Alec Clarey. Will Safe and Harry Cochrane came in on the bench.
The initial breakthrough arrived after four minutes when Luke Eves and Mat Gilbert put Jake Polledri into space. The newly-signed Gloucester starlet made ground before his pass put Protheroe clear.
A few minutes later it was the turn of centre George Boulton, again fed by Eves, who produced a thirty metre run before powering through the cover tackle to score.
Hartpury did not deal with the restart, allowing Albanian to establish good field position with an attacking line-out. The catch and drive did the rest, hooker Matt Miles getting the final touch.
With the hosts quickly back on attack, it looked as though Robbie Shaw would score in the 13th minute. He was inches short, but after the pack had driven over from the breakdown, it was lock Batley who emerged with the ball for his first of the match.
The bonus point arrived as early as the 18th minute. Mikalcius cut in powerfully off his wing and the offload was perfect for Polledri to swerve past the despairing cover.
Hartpury were cruising at this point, but a touchdown from James Pritchard, first to a kick threaded through their defence, reminded them that Albanian were also here to play.
As it was, Protheroe completed his hat-trick before the break. The first was simple finish after the forwards, with props Brockett and Mike Flook prominent, had battered their way to the try-line, while the second was another display of footwork and pace, running 40 metres from an Eves pass.
Hartpury started the second period badly. Zak Vinncombe got a third for Albanian, again first to a kick after a break-out early in the half, before Hartpury’s mini-meltdown as Will Tanner, skipper Rhys Oakley and Polledri all saw yellow.
However, having survived the inevitable Albanian pressure, the Champions pulled away. Batley’s was a spectacular effort, a lung-busting 80 metre run following an interception deep in his own territory.
There were two lovely tries to round things off. An audacious reverse pass from hooker Will Tanner, followed by slick hands from Protheroe, Eves and Safe, put Mikalcius clear before, in the final minute, another Protheroe break created space for Mike Wilcox to fly into the corner from long range.
The final whistle sparked the inevitable celebrations and a two-week break will help the squad to recover before a testing visit to Darlington Mowden Park on March 25th.
Hartpury: Wilcox (Try 79), Protheroe (Tries 4, 30, 37) , Boulton (Try 8), Eves, Mikalcius (Try 76), Perry (Cons 5, 14, 19, 31, 71, 76), Shaw; Flook, Tanner, Brockett, Batley (Tries 13, 70), Dancer, Polledri (Try 18), Gilbert, Oakley. Rep: Stephenson, Thompson, Barron, Safe, Cochrane
Old Albanian: Palmer (Cons 12, 23, 44) , Pritchard (Try 22), Lombaard, Burgess, Hearle, Vinncombe (Try 43), Gliksten; Hayden, Miles (Try 11), Garside, Hamilton, Lunnon, Johnson, Tuilagi, Billows. Reps: Walliker, Boggis, Daish, Daly, Bickle
Referee: D Collins