Hartpury produced an assured performance to stay with the leading group in National League 1 by coming through a potentially tricky fixture with local rivals Cinderford. Their second successive bonus point win represented ‘mission accomplished’ on a day when five points was the goal.
Previous games between the teams had produced tight score-lines and, despite winning all three league meetings since their promotion, Hartpury had yet to pick up a single bonus point against the Foresters.
The reality is that they dominated this game throughout three of the four quarters, eventually winning with something to spare despite some spirited Cinderford resistance.
Overall form clearly favoured the visitors but, given their recent inconsistency, there was some concern that Hartpury might fluff their lines in the heat of a full-blooded local derby. Last week’s mauling of Blaydon was impressive and fun, but unlikely to faze the home team who had plenty of incentives of their own.
Hartpury were forced to reshuffle with the withdrawal of centre Steve Leonard who had picked up a leg injury, although they had a ready replacement in George Boulton, who stepped in from the wing to make room for flyer Mark Harrison.
The pack saw the welcome return of England Under-20 man Will Safe at Number 8, Rhys Oakley moving up to lock for the absent James Voss.
Conditions were also kind. Despite the bitter cold and occasional snow-flakes, the game was played in the dry on a surface that had coped well with heavy overnight rain.
Hartpury controlled possession from the start, making good use of a stiff breeze that marginally favoured them as it blew across the pitch. The forwards patiently and efficiently worked their way through phase after phase, while half-backs Ben Vellacott and Jacob Perry were happy to use the boot in order to create field position.
Within 10 minutes the formula had worked as a line-out from a penalty kicked deep into the home 22 saw flanker Dan Thomas darting down the narrow side, before feeding back inside to the supporting Safe. He crossed virtually untouched and, despite the conversion being pulled wide, Hartpury had the start they wanted.
Very little time had passed before the College were in again. On the other flank, the ball was worked out to winger Jonas Mikalcius who made good ground and drew the cover, before another inside pass saw Vellacott rewarded for his exceptional support work. This time Thompson made no mistake for 12-0.
Hartpury were using their ball-carriers well. Jaike Polledri, as usual, made inroads while the experienced heads of Steve Pape, Rhys Oakley and Tim Brockett also appeared to be relishing the contact. Wider out, centres Boulton and Luke Eves – continuing his good form from last week – also posed a physical challenge.
Cinderford needed to up the intensity and they did, with some aggressive defence that began to knock back some of the Hartpury runners. But they were caught out again on 25 minutes. Dan Thomas was once more involved in the build-up, but Vellacott still had plenty to do as he jinked past tacklers before turning on the gas for his sixth try in the last two outings.
Cinderford’s spirit had started to rouse an untypically quiet Dockham Road crowd and they eventually had something to cheer about with 10 minutes of the half remaining. Hartpury were penalised in midfield and outside half Callum Sheedy planted a touch-finder long into their 22. The catch and drive was initially held up, but eventually momentum was regained allowing hooker Tom Bozzard to get the final touch.
The half time whistle saw Hartpury with a 10-point lead, perhaps somewhat less than their overall command of the game deserved.
Any chance of a home team revival looked unlikely as the students were immediately on the front foot after the break. Only exceptional defence, and the occasional handling error, kept them at bay until, with 55 minutes showing, they produced a copy of the Cinderford score.
A penalty was kicked to the same corner and the initial drive was repelled before Safe plunged over by the flag to collect his second. Thompson’s touchline conversion into the wind was a good one, by which time Hartpury had the bonus point and, effectively, the match.
Cinderford kept working hard but, in truth, the little possession that they had never looked like being converted into further points.
It is harsh to criticise Hartpury given the performance and the result, but they did enter a phase in which opportunities went begging as they became over-elaborate in their play, often over-looking the chance to retain possession in favour of the unlikely off-load.
But they did manage to conjure up two further tries – and both were good. In fact, the first was a beauty, as they ran from deep in their own 22. Gareth Thompson made significant ground in front of the main stand before his well-timed pass allowed Harrison to show his pace from half-way.
Minutes later it was the turn of the other wing, Rhys Oakley providing the scoring pass as Mikalcius capped a good game by shrugging off a tackler in a powerful run to the posts (pictured).
The result allowed Hartpury to make a narrow gain on both Richmond and Blackheath, neither of whom gained the bonus point in wins over Blaydon and Ampthill respectively. It also re-established Hartpury as the league’s leading scorers, with the best points difference.
Cinderford are left to contemplate another fight for survival, not helped by the fact that Henley picked up only their second win in 13 games by beating Loughborough. Wharfedale pushed hard but were beaten at DMP (their 10th successive win), Rosslyn Park pipped Fylde and Coventry beat Ionians.
Esher’s hopes of being in the final mix were dealt a blow when they went down at home to Plymouth Albion, who leap-frog them into fourth place.
Hartpury’s next opponents will be Henley Hawks at home, next Saturday (2.30pm).
Cinderford: Wilcox, Codlin, Carpenter, Winchle, Baker, Sheedy (Con 31), Frame; Porter, Bozzard (Try 31), Booley, Reynolds, King, Barking, Mills, Balding
Bench: Bundy, Baker, Brown, Hanks, Pointon
Hartpury: G Thompson (Cons 12, 55, 63, 69) Harrison (Try 63), Eves, Boulton, Mikalcius (Try 69), Perry, Vellacott (Tries 12, 25); Flook, Taylor, Brockett, Oakley, Pape, Polledri, Thomas, Safe (Tries 9, 55).
Bench: Stratford, Merrey, W Thompson, Evans, Forrester
Referee: Shane Lewis