Hartpury produced some thrilling rugby to kick off Charlie Sharples’ testimonial event at Kingsholm and led late in the game, before a last gasp Gloucester score turned the tables.
From a practical perspective, the value of this encounter was twofold; first, as another opportunity to define a starting squad ahead next weekend’s big kick-off against Bristol and, second, as a measure of where Hartpury are in terms of readiness for Championship rugby.
Beyond that, of course, it was a great event for the players to be involved in. Links between the two clubs are strong and deep and the opportunity to play at Kingsholm, as a Hartpury squad, may not come along all that often.
Gloucester, via their selection, had shown that they were not prepared to take their up-and-coming neighbours lightly. Internationals Billy Twelvetrees, Matt Scott and Henry Trinder all started in the three-quarters, while a strong-looking pack contained another to have received England recognition, new arrival from Leicester Tigers, Ed Slater.
Also in the starting home XV was powerful flanker Jake Polledri – an outstanding presence for Hartpury in the past two seasons – and it was a great shame when he had to leave the field with a leg injury early in the proceedings.
It was Hartpury who started the brighter and their high-tempo play soon had them established in the game. It was clear that this was not going to be one-way traffic. Both defences held firm early on, although Hartpury had to work hard to defend the Gloucester drive after penalties conceded had seen them pinned deep in the 22.
Thirteen minutes in, the roles were reversed. When Gloucester transgressed in midfield, the ball was spiralled into the home 22 and from the lineout drive it was hooker Luke Stratford who emerged with the game’s first score.
As usual, the Hartpury defence was solid and well-organised but if they did have an Achilles heel it was a tendency to leak penalties at the breakdown. Time after time, Gloucester were able to kick to the corners and, given that sort of position, the results were inevitable.
Ed Slater opened his account for the Cherry and Whites in the 17th minute and hooker Motu Matu’u repeated the dose seven minutes later.
In between those, however, Hartpury had grabbed another try of their own. Reminding us of his BUCS performance at Twickenham back in March, scrum-half Harry Randall caught the defence napping with a quickly tapped penalty and, on this occasion, winger Harry Cochrane was on his shoulder to finish the job. Williams converted beautifully from the touchline.
Former British Lion Twelvetrees got his name on scoresheet before the half hour, again from close range and again from a penalty kicked to touch, but Hartpury were right in the game and they were level after 35 minutes.
Starting fly-half James Williams, joining in the close-season from Moseley, was looking very good with the ball in hand and it was his break that created space for another ex-Moseley man, Ed Sheldon. From 40 metres, Sheldon had the step and the pace to go outside Gloucester wing Ollie Thorley, himself no slouch, to pick up a third Hartpury try, again well-improved by the Williams boot.
At 19-19 the game was well balanced, but there was still time for the visitors to give up another penalty in a dangerous position. This time Gloucester new boy, Scottish lock forward Andy Cramond, was on hand to finish yet another driven lineout.
The third quarter became slightly scrappy as a rash of changes on both sides disrupted the flow of the game. Still Hartpury were giving a good account of themselves and they were close when Randall was stopped a metre short.
Pressure was building toward the hour mark and Hartpury were back level when, with the roles reversed, the forwards drove towards the Gloucester line and young lock Alex Craig had the presence of mind to touch down against the base of the post to pick up his third try in two pre-season games.
Hartpury were starting to look the more dangerous side. Cochrane was every bit as lively at scrum-half as the departed Randall had been and the back three of Sheldon, Mike Wilcox and half-time replacement Elias Caven had pace to burn.
Their moment arrived in the 66th minute as they stunned the home crowd to put Hartpury in front. Wilcox started things, fielding a kick and bringing the ball out of defence before feeding Caven. The former Bristol man turned on the after-burners and tore a hole through the Gloucester rear-guard, making 35 metres in the process.
When he was closed down, he had the option of an inside ball to supporting flyer Cochrane, who stepped past a despairing cover tackle before sprinting the final 25 metres to the posts, where he finished with a flourish.
26-33 to the visitors and an uplifting pre-season victory was on the cards. But Gloucester had other ideas and two tries in the final 10 minutes took the game away from the men in black.
First it was Charlie Chapman, available to Hartpury this campaign and having already featured twice for the club in pre-season, who finished well after Gloucester had found an overlap on the right wing.
Then, with three minutes to go, Gloucester produced their best moment of the match and it was two Hartpury old boys who did the damage. Henry Trinder made a big break against a tiring Hartpury defence and scrum-half Callum Braley, in support, did the rest.
Gloucester had snatched the win and a penalty, landed with the last kick of the game, made no difference to the overall result.
In summary and despite the result, this was an excellent work-out for Hartpury ahead of the Bristol visit. Thoroughly examined in defence, they nonetheless found the opportunity to play in ‘the Hartpury way’, entertaining the crowd and winning many new local admirers in the process.
Now is the time to take stock, look after any injuries, and prepare for the real first test of the season, when the squad travel to Ashton Gate next Sunday for the start of their Championship adventure.
Gloucester Rugby: Hudson, Thorley, Scott, Twelvetrees (Try 27, Cons 18, 28, 38), Trinder, Penny (Con 78, Pen 80), Braley (Try 77); Hohneck, Matu’u (Try 24), Balmain, Slater (Try 17), Cramond (Try 37), Clarke, Polledri, Evans. Reps: Mullis, Orr, Knight, Denton, Beckett, Chapman (Try 71), Seabrook, Morris, Dunn
Hartpury RFC: Wilcox, Cochrane (Tries 13, 66), Eves, Boulton, Sheldon (Try 35), Williams (Cons 14, 36), Randall; Flook, Stratford (Try 13), Gibson, Edwards, Craig (Try 58), Langley, Gilbert, Oakley. Reps: Heard, Merrey, Walker, Dancer, Quinn, Grieve, Dyer, Safe, Forrester, Perry (Cons 59, 67), Caven.
Referee: Jack Makepeace