Despite defeat, the coaches’ office at Hartpury was a happier place on Saturday evening than it had been earlier in the week, following the disappointing display at Richmond.
This was a much better performance in virtually every respect. Yes, Ealing were the better team, as is to be expected from a side that finished second last season and will certainly challenge again this year, but there was much about Hartpury’s effort that suggested better things to come.
Hartpury’s management had reacted to the Richmond defeat with significant changes. Three players, of the 22, were making their club debuts whilst Sam Leeming (pictured) at fly-half, had his first Championship start. There were no fewer than seven changes to the starting fifteen.
Flanker James Dun and three-quarter Charlie Powell had arrived from Bristol, along with James Scott – making his second club appearance – from Sixways.
From closer to home were Hartpury students and Gloucester Academy boys, Jack Reeves and Tom Seabrook, forming a youthful centre combination, while Alex Craig made a welcome return in the pack.
Rain had fallen steadily overnight until minutes before the kick off. Despite an inevitable greasiness, however, the surface held up well.
Hartpury started brightly and dominated possession in the first quarter without ever discomforting the Ealing defence. A Leeming penalty after fifteen minutes was all they could manage.
In contrast, Ealing showed clinical efficiency in collecting two tries in a five minute spell quickly after the Leeming kick.
Ben Foley, who had a good game otherwise, knocked on at the restart and Ealing were quick to pounce. Forcing a penalty under the posts, they elected to scrum and with Hartpury pinned on their goal-line, a fizzed pass to winger James Cordy Redden left him with a simple finish.
In their next sustained attack they again had Hartpury defending deep before a well-judged grubber from outside-half Craig Willis was perfectly weighted for Guy Armitage to win the race and dot down.
Peter Lydon converted both to make it 3-14, although Leeming did land a good penalty from 40 metres to close it up slightly at the break.
Seven minutes into the second half and Hartpury gave up possession when a ball-carrier was isolated in Ealing territory. Trailfinders were ruthless on the counter and the ball was eventually worked wide right to allow Seb Stegmann to score untouched.
James Dun had been having a useful game for the Red & Blacks and he got his reward for a strong debut when he finished a drive in the 52nd minute, but that was looking academic when Trailfinders centre, Pat Howard, crashed under the posts, as first receiver off an attacking scrum.
To their credit, Hartpury worked hard to stay in the game and went in search of a bonus point of their own.
With the shackles off, Leeming started to spread the ball wide and Hartpury were looking like a different team. Tom Seabrook was starting to enjoy himself with some powerful carries in midfield and the forwards, with replacement hooker Luke Stratford to the fore, also started to impose themselves.
Trailfinders were now scrambling in defence and, after a string of penalties, it was no great surprise when Ealing Number 8, Rayn Smid, was sent to the bin for killing the ball at the breakdown.
The home team capitalised immediately from the resulting line-out drive, as a smart ball to the narrow side saw winger Jake Henry round off his best Hartpury performance, to date, with a try.
Leeming’s touchline conversion was a beauty and when, four minutes later, James Stephenson finished another powerful drive, he repeated the feat from the other side of the pitch.
Hartpury were now just seven points adrift and the crowd were sensing the opportunity to grab a late draw. There was a final chance when replacement Mat Gilbert broke powerfully down the left touchline, but the move broke down and the moment had passed.
“The boys worked hard and got stuck into Ealing,” said Head Coach Mark Cornwell. “We’ll take confidence from that and we seemed to have ironed out a lot of the issues from last week.”
“I was very happy with the lads who came in – they all contributed really well. Our focus now is to build on that performance and take it to Nottingham in the next game.”
Hartpury: Wilcox, Foley, Seabrook, Reeves, Henry (Try 70), Leeming (Cons 71, 76. Pens 15, 39), Bolt; Murphy, Tanner, Harden, Craig, Scott, Dun (Try 52), Langley, Grieve. Bench: Stratford, Merrey, Morris, Gilbert, Stephenson (Try 75), Cochrane, Powell.
Ealing: Lydon (Cons 21, 26, 59. Pen 65), Stegmann (Try 47), Armitage (Try 26), Howard (Try 59), Cordy Redden (Try 20), Willis, Foley; Ellwood, Cornish, Millar-Mills, Landry, West, Reid, Durtalo, Smid. Bench: Walker, Lundberg, Betts, Onojaife, O’Regan, Burns, May.
Referee: Michael Hudson