Hartpury fell to another frustrating defeat, the eighth in succession in the Greene King IPA Championship, as Doncaster Knights were allowed to walk away with a straightforward, six-try, victory.
The frustration comes from the fact that the Red & Blacks side are week in, week out, competitive in many aspects of matches, but with a tendency to give up easy tries – and an equally pronounced inability to create them – which has the coaching staff reaching for the sedatives.
So it was on Saturday. There was very little between the sides in the set piece or at the breakdown. Hartpury had plenty of ball. They even scored three tries of their own although, tellingly, all three came from lineout drives, whilst clear-cut opportunities from open play are difficult to remember.
The first half was a largely even affair and, later in the game, Hartpury looked better once they set about chasing the four-try bonus point. In between, there was a 20-minute period in which Hartpury conceded four tries, at least three of which came directly from errors, and the game was gone.
The match was played in overcast but largely dry conditions. The heavily used surface continues to stand up well, even in the depths of January, and the stage was set for a decent game of rugby.
Hartpury were bolstered by young forwards James Scott and Tom Dodd from Worcester Warriors, while Bristol’s Ehize Ehizode was available to them from the bench.
The visitors featured three players with Hartpury history. Hooker Ben Hunter and skipper Tom Calladine are both former students, while centre Elliot Creed had played several times, in National One, on dual registration from Gloucester.
The match started at a good tempo, with Hartpury seeing plenty of early possession.
But it was the visitors who opened the scoring in the eighth minute. Number 8, Ollie Stedman, picked a good line onto a Colin Quigley off-load and found a yawning gap in the Hartpury midfield defence. He barely needed to sprint to score under the posts.
Hartpury responded well, but familiar failings in attack were undermining all of their hard work. They did get back on terms early in the second quarter, however, after a first club try for Fijian international, Akapusi Qera.
Jamie Forrester made a good line-break – about the only memorable one of the game from the Hartpury backs – and his inside ball, to winger Jake Henry, looked certain to produce a score. But Henry had been taken out off the ball by his opposite number, Dougie Flockhart, and the move broke down.
Flockhart got a 10-minute break for his indiscretion and from the resulting line out, Qera was on hand to plunge over, after the initial drive had been held at the line.
Hartpury were competing well at this stage. Qera (pictured) and his back row colleague, Iain Grieve, were prominent in the loose, while players such as skipper, Simon Linsell and prop forward Alex Gibson were also showing up well. Luke Eves and Jake Henry ran hard in the backs.
Parity at half time would have been about fair, but it was not to be. Kicking deep, Hartpury’s chase on the right hand side was not what it should have been and the Knights had acres of space to run the ball back.
Winger Tyson Lewis made good ground and, eventually, scrum-half Tom James was over for the softest of tries.
Hartpury repeated the error shortly after the break. Cozens chipped the ball, out of defence, towards Tyson who had three Hartpury players converging on him in a planned move.
Inexplicably, all three of them somehow missed making the tackle and Knights were free to attack towards the posts. Hartpury did scramble to shut down the initial surge, but when the ball was recycled, there was no stopping big lock, Nick Civetta, from close range.
Hartpury hit back to score with another lineout drive – this time Grieve getting the final carry – but hopes of a come-back were short-lived.
If the Civetta try was disappointing, worse was to come in the 50th minute. Running out of defence, Hartpury had just about emerged from their 22 when the tackle was made. Somehow, the ball was turned over and Stedman had his second simple jog-in of the afternoon.
Two minutes later, Hartpury were caught holding on, close to half-way. Flockhart stepped up to land the penalty for Knights, one of eight successful kicks – some of them tricky – on a day when he produced a 100% kicking performance.
Hartpury had gone from 7-7 to 14-31 in the space of 14 minutes – without the Knights having to do anything breath-taking – and the game was as good as gone.
Doncaster now enjoyed a good spell as they started to off-load well and play with the freedom that comes from having the bonus point win in the bag. James, for his second, and replacement hooker Mike Mayhew both scored tries as the Hartpury defence became increasingly ragged.
To their credit, the Red & Blacks pulled themselves together and ended the game with a decent quarter of an hour. Cochrane and Leeming injected a greater tempo – albeit against tiring opponents – and Hartpury got their reward through a penalty try, after a drive was pulled down on the Doncaster line.
Fittingly, however, the final word went to Flockhart, who landed a late penalty for the visitors.
Hartpury now face a trip to Cornish Pirates – whom they have never beaten – before what is shaping up to be a critical encounter, at home, to fellow strugglers, Richmond, on February 15th (7.45pm).
Hartpury: Wilcox, Foley, Forrester, Eves, Henry, Cozens (Cons 27, 48), Bolt; Murphy, Tanner, Gibson, Scott, Linsell, Dodd, Qera (Try 26), Grieve (Try 47). Reps: Stratford, Merrey, Flook, Ehizode, Gilbert, Cochrane, Leeming. (Plus Penalty Try, 74)
Doncaster: Cowell, Flockhart (Cons 9, 39, 46, 51, 58, 66. Pens 52, 79), Owen, Creed, Lewis, Olver, James (Tries 38, 57); Hislop, Hunter, Quigley, Tyrell, Civetta (Try 45), Ryan, Calladine, Stedman (Tries 8, 50). Reps: Mayhew (Try 65), Williams, Sproston, Lomidze, Jones, Seniloli, Foley.
Referee: Michael Hudson