Hartpury started and finished this game like genuine promotion candidates. Unfortunately, for sixty minutes in the middle, they were simply not good enough against a strong team which recorded its twelfth successive win.
Although there was nothing spared in terms of effort and energy, Hartpury undermined a blistering opening through a combination of indiscipline and inaccuracy which allowed Mowden Park to firstly get a foothold in the match, before pulling smoothly away.
The College had been dealt a blow during the week, when it became clear that the hand injury to influential scrum half Ben Vellacott was sufficient to warrant a number of weeks on the side-lines.
There were further disappointments with the news that centre Steve Leonard was still not ready to return and the withdrawal, through illness, of Gloucester’s Gareth Evans.
The absence of Robbie Shaw meant that Harry Cochrane (pictured) got a rare opportunity to start at half back and his lively presence was one of relatively few positives on an otherwise difficult afternoon.
Despite the absent Evans, Hartpury have no shortage of back row options. His namesake, George, started at Number 8 and there were two other breakaway forwards in the second row, as Will Safe joined Rhys Oakley in the engine room. There was some good injury news, in the return of Joe Dancer who was named on the bench.
A trip to the 25,000-seater Northern Echo Arena is always an interesting experience and conditions were good on a chilly, but dry and windless, afternoon.
Hartpury were quickly ahead as the hosts were scruffy in dealing with the kick off and were pinned in their own 22. A couple of plays later, from a powerful 15-metre line-out drive, Tim Brockett was over for the score.
In the early stages the visitors were dangerous every time they had the ball and punching big holes in the Mowden Park defence. Mark Harrison crossed in the corner for the second, in the seventh minute, and Hartpury looked well set.
The local crowd were muttering about a possible forward pass for Harrison’s try, although they need not have worried. If there was any benefit given to Hartpury on that occasion, it was the last they received on an afternoon when Michael Hudson’s whistle was never very far from his lips.
Although Hartpury continued to create chances, they were undermined by some loose handling and an increasing tendency to infringe at the breakdown.
Penalties allowed Park to create field position and their recovery was underway when hooker-turned-flanker Simon Uzokwe was driven over at the end of the first quarter.
Tails up, the home side began to control a lot more of the ball. Pressure told before half-time when Park’s other flanker, Santiago Socino, was able to pick a line though the heart of the defence and went under the posts untouched.
Seals had converted both tries – in contrast to Hartpury’s Gareth Thompson who had a poor day with the boot – and another penalty within range gave Park a handy seven-point lead at the break.
The pattern was now set and continued into the second half as Hartpury worked hard in possession and then give up huge swathes of territory via either the whistle or handling errors. Even having the home scrum in full reverse was enough to bring censure – pushing too hard, perhaps?
Two more Park tries followed swiftly. Uzokwe appeared fortunate to be awarded his second when the officials adjudged that he had won the race to a grubber kicked behind the defence. Another penalty minutes later – this one costing Jake Polledri 10 minutes in the bin – was kicked to the corner and prop Gareth Nesbitt took full advantage following the drive.
Thus Park became the second team to pass 30 points against Hartpury this season. Replacement centre Jamie Forrester looked sharp for Hartpury and raised the possibility of a come-back with a well-taken try on the hour, but hope was short-lived.
Having patiently worked their way through a number of phases, Hartpury launched a somewhat aimless kick toward Park territory and were guilty of some slack defence as the ball was run strongly back at them, Woodhouse with the finish to put the hosts out of sight.
To their credit, Hartpury never stopped fighting and replacements Dancer, Des Merrey and Nathan Taylor were visible in their effort. George Boulton and Jacob Perry were both inches short before Taylor did battle his way over late in the game.
The final play saw a trademark Jones Mikalcius try from long range but, in truth, this was Mowden Park’s day and the late scores were merely window dressing for the students.
Comfortable wins for both Richmond and Blackheath make it odds-on that Hartpury will be playing in National 1 again next season, although a home fixture against Blackheath next week offers an early opportunity to make a positive statement.
The Richmond win was at Henley and, with Cinderford also losing at home, those two clubs are looking increasingly isolated at the bottom of the table. A win for Blaydon, at home to Ionians, boosted their hopes of survival while ensuring that the Humberside team are now very much in the mix.
Loughborough (who played Blackheath) are down there too, as are Wharfedale who at least got two bonus points from their trip to Ampthill.
DMP: Barnard, Homan, Woodhouse (Try 62), Auld, Henry, Seals (Cons 19, 34, 46, 54; Pen 38), Bravo; Nesbitt (Try 54), Demergasso, Appleby, Conquest, Ferreira, Uzokwe (Tries 19, 46), Socino (Try 34), Hodgson.
Reps: Darkintis, Craggs, Duff, MacKenzie, Walsh
Hartpury: G Thompson (Con 83), Harrison (Try 7), Eves, Boulton, Mikalcius (Try 83), Perry, Cochrane; Flook, Stephenson, Brockett (Try 3), Safe, Oakley, Polledri, Thomas, Evans
Reps: Taylor (Try 77), W Thompson, Merrey, Dancer, Forrester (Try 58)
Ref: Michael Hudson