Hartpury were unfortunate to leave Doncaster with nothing to show for their efforts. A strong third quarter display from the Knights, topped off by late interception try, denied them even a bonus point after leading at half time.
In conditions which more resembled January than early September – it rained for the entire 80 minutes, sometimes torrentially – the visitors had produced an opening period which demonstrated the improvements in their game this season.
Hartpury dealt well with the Doncaster kicking game, with Ben Foley in particular looking brave and secure under the high ball, while the newly-installed half-back partnership of Richard Bolt and Luke Cozens were productive with the boot, in both defence and attack.
A 17-6 interval lead was nothing less than the Red & Blacks deserved, although everything was to change after the break as Doncaster stepped up a gear.
The visitors came into the game with few changes, only the injured Rupert Harden missing from last week’s starting fifteen, and in good spirits after the opening day win.
Despite the rain, the pitch was in great shape – as you would expect for Knights’ first home game of the season – and both sides, in general, coped well with the greasy ball.
Knights got the scoring under way in the 9th minute, when Hartpury were caught not releasing close to their posts and the Doncaster fly-half, Kurt Morath, had little difficulty taking the three points.
But it was Hartpury who picked up the game’s first try, eight minutes later. A penalty was kicked into the home 22 and the visitors took clean ball to set up the drive. Although they were eventually halted by the big Knights pack, Bolt was quick to rescue the opportunity.
Sniping in-field, he evaded the fringe defence before a plunge for the line saw him slide over on the wet surface (pictured, top). An excellent Cozens conversion was added and, in a subsequent attack two minutes later, the fly half increased the lead with a sweetly struck drop goal – something of a rarity for Hartpury.
The visitors were playing the smarter rugby at this stage, soaking up some fairly lateral Knights’ attacks before turning the home defence by kicking well behind.
Morath did add another penalty kick for Doncaster, but it was Hartpury who finished the half stronger.
Again, a penalty kicked deep was the source. This time the forwards showed patience and maturity, driving ever-closer to the try line in phase after phase. The breakthrough had to come and, eventually, it was hooker, Luke Stratford, who earned the congratulations of his team-mates by getting the final touch.
Cozens still had time to drift a penalty wide of the posts on the stroke of half time, thus ending his 100% record for the season to date.
One of the last things that anybody was betting on, at this stage in the game – after a genuinely good half – was that Hartpury would not score again in the match.
But that was the way it was going to be. Doncaster came out a different unit after the break, quickly using their big forwards to make inroads.
Hartpury were holding on, but lost flanker Rob Langley for an illegal intervention deep in their own 22. Repeatedly opting to scrum, the Yorkshiremen finally got their reward, as a collapse on the Hartpury line prompted Mr Meredith to run under the posts and signal the seven-pointer.
Hartpury were finding it hard to get hands on the ball and all of the action was now in their half. Shortly before the hour mark, the Knights back division finally made a contribution as good hands down the short side created a gap for full-back Cameron Cowell to finish and give his side the lead. Morath converted well.
The Red & Blacks did finally manage to loosen the shackles and start to win some ball, but Mr Meredith intervened frequently and, for a while, always for the home side. Morath was able to benefit from one of these opportunities, extending the gap to six points.
Hartpury still had eyes on the win and, with gradually better possession, were able to start probing again. However, the game was up, with five minutes to play, when Doncaster winger – former Gloucester Rugby man, Steve McColl – was able to latch on to a loose pass and run the ball in from half-way.
The second half ended much as the first had, with the visiting forwards hammering at the Doncaster line. There was no happy ending this time, though, as a fumble brought the final whistle and a point-less drive home.
Hartpury will face a further stern test at the Gillman’s Ground next Saturday when Cornish Pirates, who finished fourth in the league last season and defeated the Knights a week ago, are the visitors (2.30pm).
Doncaster: Cowell (Try 58), McColl (Try 74), Hayes, Matavesi, Lewis, Morath (Con 59. Pens 9, 35, 65), James; Hislop, Hunter, Quigley, Eames, Hicks, Calladine, Hills, Ryan. Subs: Seniloli, Foley, Williams, Sproston, Malcolm, Challinor, Tyrell (Score include a penalty try, 48)
Hartpury: Foley, Sheldon, Eves, Forrester, Henry, Cozens (Cons 18, 39. Drop-Goal 20), Bolt (Try 17); Murphy, Stratford (Try 38), Gibson, Graig, Linsell, Langley, Gilbert, Grieve. Subs: Tanner, Merrey, Morris, Stephenson, Pashley, Cochrane, Chamberlain
Referee: John Meredith