Was this the day on which Hartpury ‘arrived’ as a Championship club?
After three narrow defeats and a draw in their five previous games this season, the Red & Blacks finally found a way to get over the line, against a club that has been among the Championship pace-makers in the past three campaigns.
Hartpury, in fact, led for a grand total of three minutes in this game, Harry Randall’s late, late try – improved by an ice-cool kick from James Williams – getting their noses in front with little more than one minute of play remaining.
However, on the balance of territory and possession, even the most die-hard Knights fan – and there were plenty of those at the Gillman’s Ground on Saturday – would not deny the home team their reward.
The final 10 minutes of the match were enthralling. A Williams’ penalty had brought his team into bonus point territory in the 69th minute, but there was no way that Hartpury wanted to settle for that.
Those closing minutes saw the hosts laying siege to the Knights’ goal-line. For a team that has regularly entertained the crowd with open, flowing rugby, Hartpury had clearly decided on a more pragmatic approach, smashing their way up through the forwards as all eight of the pack, including a highly effective group of replacements, carried closer and closer to their objective.
There were times when it seemed inevitable that Hartpury must score and, equally, times when the stubborn Knights’ defence would hold on for the win.
With time running down, Hartpury were adjudged to have been held up over the line. From the scrum, Iain Grieve launched himself off the base to be followed, in turn, by his outstanding back row colleagues Rob Langley and Mat Gilbert. Replacement lock Joe Dancer was next to test the Doncaster tackling before Grieve, again, was almost at the line.
Finally, Harry Randall looked to be thinking about bringing his backs into play before, with a big step, he was through the fringe defence and over.
In that moment he won the game, secured the bonus point and completed a personal hat-trick that inevitably saw him named as Hartpury’s man-of-the-match. What a player!
Not that the preceding 70 minutes were in any way short of excitement and quality.
Knights, befitting a team that started the day hot on the heels of leaders Bristol, settled the quicker and were soon asking questions of the Hartpury defence. Generally, that rear-guard was solid but when two tacklers missed centre Will Owen in the 13th minute, he had former Hartpury student Andrew Bulumakau on his shoulder for a comfortable finish under the posts.
That was the signal for Hartpury to raise their attacking effort and Knights were soon having to defend across the width of the pitch, as the Red & Blacks looked for opportunities in the wider channels.
The breakthrough eventually came at the end of the first quarter when good hands saw full-back Mike Wilcox with the space and time to dive over in the corner.
Perry was marginally wide with his conversion, but Hartpury continued to look threatening and Doncaster survived by the skin of their teeth when full-back Junior Bulumakau got fingertips to a floated pass from Luke Eves that would have given winger Ed Sheldon a simple run in.
The score came with three minutes remaining before the break. Sheldon looked to get outside his man but when he was scragged the move was continued by Gilbert. His inside ball found Randall and the England Under-20 man had the wheels to beat the cover.
Perry did improve the score on this occasion, but the lead was short-lived as the Knights scored again with the final play of the half.
Good interplay down the narrow side of the breakdown saw Junior Bulumakau and Tyson Lewis combine to put scrum half Tom James in for a try, again converted by Simon Humberstone for a 14-12 half-time lead.
Straight from the re-start, Hartpury looked to have shot themselves in the foot. Completely failing to deal with the kick-off, they gave up the field position from which veteran prop Colin Quigley was able to rumble over for his first ever try for the Yorkshiremen.
Hartpury were back in contention minutes later. Randall, quicker in thought and deed than anyone around him, tapped a penalty in the shadow of the Knights’ posts and had squirmed over before the defence could hold him back.
Still, two Humberstone penalties, largely against the run of play, had Doncaster looking good for the points before the Williams response triggered the late drama.
Hartpury now have two weeks off from league duty as the British & Irish Cup takes their attention, starting with a home clash against Cornish Pirates, next Saturday.
Hartpury: Wilcox (Try 20), Cochrane, Boulton, Eves, Sheldon, Perry (Cons 37, 44), Randall (Tries 37, 44, 79); Murphy, Tanner, Harden, Edwards, Quinn, Langley, Gilbert, Dyer. Replacements: Walker, Flook, Daniels, Dancer, Grieve, Williams (Pen 69, Con 79), Carpenter
Doncaster: J Bulumakau, Wilson, A Bulumakau (Try 13), Owen, Lewis, Humberstone (Cons 13, 40, 41, Pens 49, 57), James (Try 40); List 6, Hunter, Quigley (Try 41), Eames, Hicks, Challinor, Hills, Shaw. Replacements: Nelson, Evans, Sproston, Hill, Jones, Heaney, Cusack
Referee: Tim Wigglesworth