Many thanks to Emma Smith for this report.
THERE was heartbreak for Hartpury at the Gillman’s Ground as they staged a remarkable Championship comeback to take a 21-19 lead against Bedford Blues with only three minutes remaining; but then saw victory snatched from their grasp by a late Howard Packman try.
Trailing 19-0 at half-time after countless unforced errors cost them a host of scoring opportunities in the opening 25 minutes and then an almost sublimely ridiculous penalty count allowed Blues hit back with a three-try flurry, the home side gave themselves a world of work to do.
And they came within a whisker of toppling the third placed team who had beaten them 33-7 earlier in the season, although they only had themselves to blame for not having established a more comfortable cushion.
Hartpury had the edge territorially in the opening 10 minutes, with winger Ed Sheldon showing tantalising glimpses of his lightning pace and hooker Will Tanner making solid charges through midfield.
Suspect decision-making and failures in execution, however, saw chances go begging, with both centre Sam Bedlow and fly-half James Williams both fumbling forwards.
Hartpury were paying the price for forcing the pace and the pass and another opportunity was lost when they were pinged for crossing after scrum-half Harry Randall – pinpoint with his passing as always – accelerated from the back of a ruck to arc through.
Centre Luke Eves had almost found a try-scoring gap minutes earlier after George Boulton showed good strength to retain possession under heavy pressure on the wing.
As the second quarter got underway, Bedford started to find their groove but a pacey break from full-back Richard Lane was undone by a forward pass as the visitors over-complicated their attack.
An excellent tackle by flanker Iain Grieve prevented what looked a certain score on 23 minutes as the visitors got a good drive on from a penalty line-outWith the penalty count mounting at an alarming rate, Blues repeatedly used this tactic to make inroads but a great steal at the line-out and powerful break from flanker Rob Langley got Hartpury out of trouble.
The reprieve was temporary though and it was no surprise when referee Simon Harding’s patience ran out and lock Alex Craig paid the price, seeing yellow.
Somehow, the hosts turned over possession as they dug deep in defence to halt the subsequent Bedford drive but the visitors finally made the extra man count, profiting from yet another penalty as number eight Jarad Williams took it quickly to score. Fly-half Harry Sheppard missed the conversion.
There was danger again when scrum-half Jordan Burns unleashed a pace-packed break and centre Chris Czekaj was in support. The ball was lost but with Blues’ back-line growing in confidence and creativity, a lovely show and go from winger Elliot Clements-Hill set the platform for a try for the impressive Lane. Sheppard converted for a 12-0 lead.
And there was still time for one more before the break as Jarad Williams sauntered over after a nice offload from winger Howard Packman, with gaping holes appearing in a stretched Hartpury defence, leaving the hosts trailing 19-0.
With the half-time reflection clearly ringing in their ears, Hartpury looked like a team stung into action at the start of the second half.
The hosts showed precision and patience as they moved the ball rapidly through a series of rucks, Randall maintaining the momentum with excellent service from the base. Eves, replacement Ed Coulson, impressive number eight Darrell Dyer, Sheldon, Grieve, Craig and Tanner were all involved as they crept to within metres of the line; Randall close to sniping over before the ball was recycled for prop Dan Murphy to touch down. James Williams converted to cut the gap to 19-7.
The purple patch continued with Blues pinned back in their own half, Coulson making a smart break again to open up the defence, but as the ball was moved along the line, Boulton was isolated on the wing.
The threat kicked up a notch again when Grieve charged out of his own half but the attack ran aground when Randall coughed up possession, although the diminutive number nine redeemed himself by hauling down the flanker, Joshua Buggea, who had profited from his mistake.
A turnover with the line begging and a forward pass denied Hartpury twice more but the pressure finally paid off on 58 minutes.
A dancing break from Wilcox had reaped a penalty and after the home side quickly fired the ball left from the subsequent line-out, Randall left the defence rooted as he knifed through midfield. He ran out of room but replacement Joe Dancer then ran onto his pass at speed to go close before releasing Murphy for the try. Williams converted to cut the gap to 19-14.
The Blues always looked dangerous on the counter though, and with Burns and Clements-Hill continuing to make a nuisance of themselves, the visitors had the chance to extend their lead with a penalty on 70 minutes, but replacement William Hooley missed the kick.
The Bedford line came under a fresh assault as Hartpury drove a penalty line-out to within metres of the line. Although held up, the visitors were forced to persistently infringe to prevent a try and the patient procession of the pick and go finally reaped a reward as Langley found a way over under the posts. Williams converted.
An exciting finish looked guaranteed and so it proved. Lane and replacement Michael Le Bourgeois both breached the Hartpury 22 as the clock wound down but it was Packman who eventually found the gap in a tired Hartpury rearguard to sprint through and swerve over the whitewash. The whistle sounded as Hooley’s successful conversion sailed through, to leave Hartpury deflated after a quite remarkable comeback.
HARTPURY RFC: M. Wilcox, G. Boulton, S. Bedlow (E. Coulson 40), L. Eves, E. Sheldon (H. Cochrane 67), J. Williams, H. Randall; D. Murphy (M. Flook 67), W. Tanner (J. Mullis 58), R. Harden (C. Knight 45), R. Oakley (J. Quinn 58), A. Craig, I. Grieve (J. Dancer 48), R. Langley, D. Dyer.
Hartpury (21 points)
42: Try Murphy
43: Williams conversion
60: Murphy try
61: Williams conversion
76: Langley try
77: Williams conversion
Bedford Blues (26 points)
31: Williams try
37: Lane try
38: Sheppard conversion
39: Williams try
40: Sheppard conversion
79: Packman try
80: Hooley conversion