In producing this dominant win over highly-regarded Blackheath, Hartpury ensured their best start to a season since promotion in 2014, having lost their previous two openers.
The RFC, much like Saturday’s visitors, have been widely tipped to be among the pacemakers in National 1 this time around and if they wanted to put down a marker to their rivals, they could hardly have done so in a more emphatic manner.
They were helped, to a degree, by a Blackheath team that rarely got out of first gear, but to criticise the opposition would be to miss the point that Blackheath were simply not allowed to play.
As if harking back to much of the 2015-16 campaign, the game was played in murky and increasingly wet conditions – a far cry from the sun and warmth of pre-season. But that had little impact on the College side which tore into their visitors from the first whistle.
Hartpury have retained much of the team from last season. Leading points scorer Gareth Thompson has returned to his native Cardiff, but try-machine Jonas Mikalcius still has one year of study left at the College despite pledging his longer-term future to Harlequins.
To an already potent back division they have added the skills of former Cinderford full-back, Mike Wilcox, and the options of scrum half Andy Uren, dual-registered from Bristol, and Adam Hastings, from Bath, outside him.
In the pack, lock Joe Quinn has been recruited – although missing with injury in this match – and back row forward Mat Gilbert, a former degree student, has returned after a professional career with Scarlets, Bath and Worcester Warriors.
Gilbert and the rampaging Jake Polledri formed an outstanding back row combination with England Under-20 number 8, Zac Mercer (pictured, with Des Merrey), who grabbed the MOTM award for an exceptional debut performance.
The hosts were ahead within 10 minutes after being camped deep in Blackheath territory for all of that time. Indeed, lock forward Gillanders was already in the sin-bin by the time his colleagues collapsed a Hartpury drive on their own try-line for the first score to be awarded as a penalty try. Another yellow, to Blackheath flanker Sewell, quickly followed.
Hastings created the second when his deft chip over the visiting defence was perfectly weighted for hooker Will Tanner to collect and score, before Hastings himself converted into the blustery wind.
Hartpury did not relax and it is hard to remember Blackheath mounting any serious threat before half time. The third try followed before the break and came from a familiar source.
An attacking line-out was won by fingertips and flanker Gilbert collected the bouncing ball before launching himself at the defence. Back row colleagues Polledri and Mercer both continued the move with strong drives infield towards the posts, before the ball was switched back towards the touchline where Hastings was able to release Mikalcius for a relatively simple finish in the corner.
A late penalty gave Hartpury a 24-0 half-time advantage.
The bonus point came soon after the break. Steve Leonard was halted in a typically forthright charge through the midfield but centre colleague Luke Eves was first to the loose ball and had the presence of mind to scoop it up to the supporting Wilcox, who finished.
The game lost a bit of its rhythm as the rain started to fall in earnest, but even with the bench being emptied there was still only one team in it.
Mercer capped his outstanding display with the final score of the match as Blackheath threw caution to the wind in the hope of gathering some small consolation from the afternoon. As they shovelled the ball back in an effort to keep it alive, the young forward was quickly through to strip the ball in the tackle before driving over from twenty metres.
Speaking after the game, newly-promoted Head Coach, Mark Cornwell, could not hide his satisfaction with both the result and the performance.
“We knew what sort of challenge Blackheath would pose, so to wrap up a bonus point and win to nil was pleasing. I was impressed by our work rate and our game management today, in what were testing conditions.”
“We learned a lot from a tough game at Ealing last week and we knew that we wanted to start well. With two homes games to start the season we’ve got an opportunity to establish a platform – there’s still plenty for us to work on, to get to the level that we want, but we’ll analyse the game over the next couple of days and keep pushing forward.”
Hartpury will hope to continue in a similar fashion when Plymouth Albion are the visitors next Saturday.
Elsewhere, new boys Cambridge and Macclesfield both threatened upset wins but both were eventually pipped, by Albion and Esher (our opponents in two weeks time) respectively. However, Albanians, the other promoted side, did cause a surprise with a big win at Blaydon.
Other results were somewhat more predictable. Coventry ran up a big score at home to Loughborough, while Moseley edged a tight encounter at Fylde. Ampthill, surely a contender this year, carried on last season’s good form in beating Rosslyn Park, while the remaining game saw Ionians enjoy a fine win over Darlington Mowden Park.
Hartpury: Wilcox, Boulton, Leonard (Cochrane 49), Eves, Mikalcius; Hastings, Uren ; Merrey (Flook 45), Tanner (Gilbert 76), Thompson (Brockett 29), Oakley (Negri 55), Dancer (Oakley 75), Polledri, Gilbert (Stephenson 58), Mercer.
Blackheath: Davies, Lloyd (Chapman 64), Burcham, Cooke, Chapman (Fielding 49); Whatling (Griffiths 49), Walsh; Croall, George (Fry 63), Scutt (Cooper 40, Scutt 79), Gillanders, Owen, Sewell, Walker, Baldwin (Farmer 40).
Hartpury Tries: Penalty 9, Tanner 18, Mikalcius 34, Wilcox 48, Mercer 75
Hartpury Cons: Hastings 9, 19, 34
Penalty: Hastings 39
Referee: Veryan Boscawen