Hartpury left it late to preserve their season-long unbeaten record, only a late Ben Vellacott try – his third in the game – finally separating the teams.
In fact, his 77th minute effort, successfully improved by the reliable boot of Jacob Perry, marked the first time in the match that either side had lead by more than one score.
Hartpury had never previously won at The Rock and were facing a Rosslyn Park side in good form, winning eight of their last nine in a run stretching back to early December.
Park play on a 3G pitch and conditions overhead were generally good. Hartpury, having had a week off, were able to field a strong side with Vellacott continuing at half-back and Joe Batley fully recovered from his head knock against Cambridge. Alec Clarey returned at tight-head, while flanker Mat Gilbert was also back.
The match itself was compelling for its closeness and intensity, although moments of thrilling rugby were relatively rare, as two good defences were quick to close down their opposition. Park played a full part, always combative in the loose and ready to move the ball given the opportunity.
One area where the visitors appeared to have the edge was at the scrum. It was from here that two kickable penalties in the opening 10 minutes allowed Perry to nudge Hartpury into a 6-0 lead. Perry’s goal kicking has been a source of strength this season and, apart from one late penalty miss, this match was to be no exception.
Park clawed their way into the game and in Harry Leonard they had a reliable boot of their own. Penalties in the 15th and 24th minutes had the Londoners level and it was directly after the second of these that they took the lead.
Influential Number 8, Hugo Ellis, claimed the re-start and he started up field, missed by at least three chasers. He made twenty metres before being stopped, although his off-load gave lock James Inglis the chance to barrel on.
Park then moved the ball wide and clever interplay between Henry Robinson and winger Michael Kohler saw the latter finish well. A fine kick by Leonard made it 13-6.
Stung, Hartpury were on the offensive for the remainder of the half. When winger George Boulton was very unlucky to be judged ‘held up’ over the line five minutes before the break, it looked as though they might be frustrated in their efforts, but pressure finally told in the 38th minute.
A series of attacking set pieces followed as Hartpury laid siege to the Park line. Eventually, Rhys Oakley fed Ben Vellacott off the back of a scrum and the Gloucester man had the footwork to finish the job.
Perry’s conversion tied the scores and there was still time for him to land a well-struck penalty to give the visitors a narrow half-time lead.
The pattern early in the second half was similar with Hartpury enjoying lots of possession without breaking a stubborn Park rear-guard.
Things took a turn for the worse for Hartpury when a move broke down in midfield and Park were quick to counter from deep. With the league-leaders stretched, Kohler was on hand to pick up his second try of the game, although the damage was limited as Leonard’s conversion bounced back off the upright. 16-18.
Park infringed as Hartpury continued to press and Perry edged the visitors back in front before they suffered a double blow in the 53rd minute.
Lock forward Joe Dancer saw yellow after clearing out a ruck in fashion not liked by referee Matt Turvey. From the penalty, Park kicked deep into the corner and, although several drives were held up, a penalty try was the eventual outcome.
25-19 to the hosts and, with the final quarter approaching, the unbeaten record was under severe threat. However, it was simply an invitation for Hartpury to step up the pressure and they were quickly back in the red zone.
A series of infringements close to the Park line might have tempted Mr Turvey to repeat his earlier decision but eventually Vellacott took matters into his own hands and was far too fast, in thought and deed, as the Park defence was caught dozing by a 5-metre tap and go (pictured).
It was 25-26 and the teams exchanged further penalties before, nursing a one-point lead, Hartpury launched the defining attack.
This time, it was more in keeping with the brand of rugby they are known for. Mike Wilcox and Jonas Mikalcius made good ground out of defence before, using quick ball from the breakdown, Steve Leonard burst through the Park defence.
His inside ball found the ever-present Vellacott and the game was won. Perry’s conversion made it an eight-point lead and victory number 24 in a stellar season.
The simple maths is that Hartpury need two further points to be crowned champions and they will be targeting next week’s home fixture, against mid-table Old Albanian, to get the job finished.
Rosslyn Park: Robinson, Aspland-Robinson, Henderson, Reay, Kohler (Tries 27, 48), Leonard (Cons 27, 56. Pens 15, 24, 68), Weir; Nwakor-Nwanaebi, Vaughan-Edwards, Maguire, Inglis, Frampton, Milne, Hudson, Ellis. Replacements: Lovell, Wade, Taggart, Crow, Crane (Score inc. Penalty try, 55)
Hartpury: Wilcox, Boulton, Leonard, Eves, Mikalcius, Perry (Cons 39, 59, 77. Pens 6,10, 40, 51, 74), Vellacott (Tries 38, 59, 77); Flook, Tanner, Clarey, Batley, Dancer, Polledri, Gilbert, Oakley. Replacements: Stephenson, Brockett, Barron, Quinn, Shaw.
Referee: M Turvey