It was a day of celebration at Hartpury. After the final whistle, the squad were presented with trophies and medals for their unbelievable achievements this season and were joined on the pitch by the University 1st team, whose BUCS Super Rugby triumph had illuminated Twickenham just 48 hours earlier.
Among the healthy crowd were a number of former Hartpury players and coaches, including Welsh internationals Nathan Thomas and Andries Pretorius, as well as ex-Wales international coach and former Director of Rugby at the College, Allan Lewis.
Amidst the jollity, there was a game of the breathless, end-to-end kind that Hartpury appear to be making their speciality this season. 11 tries and several near misses kept the spectators richly entertained, even if the coaches were less than impressed at times.
A sharp deluge ended as the teams appeared ahead of the game, with the rest of the afternoon continuing in bright sunshine.
Hartpury were able to field a strong side. Mat Protheroe continued at fly half, while fellow Gloucester Rugby youngster, Tom Hudson, made his debut for the club at full-back, Mike Wilcox having collected a season-ending knee injury at Mowden Park last week.
Wingers Harry Cochrane and Jonas Mikalcius were both doubling up from Thursday’s BUCS final, as was prop Alfie Barron on the bench. Steve Leonard made a welcome return from injury, although scrum-half Ben Vellacott was still absent.
Hartpury started brightly and it was no great surprise when they opened the scoring after 8 minutes. A series of punishing drives from the pack, with Jake Polledri, Joe Dancer and Wayne Thompson all prominent, took them close the Loughborough posts. When the ball was moved wider to the right, Jonas Mikalcius was across from his opposite wing to add another try to his already impressive tally.
However, the pattern of the game was set when Loughborough cut the lead just a few minutes later. Hartpury were on the wrong side of referee Adam Leal for much of the afternoon and a penalty was kicked to touch deep in their 22. Loughborough executed the catch and drive perfectly, Matt Berry applying the finish.
Mikalcius scored a second late in the first quarter, his 28th try of the season coming in his more familiar left corner as the visiting defence was again over-loaded.
With Protheroe pulling the strings, Hartpury were playing their normal expansive game and, on this occasion, were well-matched by the Students. Hartpury pressure produced another score in the 24th minute, when after more punishing work by the pack, Protheroe was able to dart through close to the ruck and finish well.
At 21-5, Loughborough needed to stop the Hartpury momentum and they produced a good try six minutes before the break. Owen Waters’ pinpoint cross-field kick was beautifully palmed back and down by Yiannis Loizias, to leave full-back Will Edwards with a simple task.
Steve Leonard was showing no signs of his recent injury and he concluded the first half scoring when he made a smart interception in midfield and was able to make the 35 metres to the posts unhindered.
The second period had barely started when Loughborough responded again, winger Austin Beckett getting outside the Hartpury defence, following some good handling in the Students backs and aided by some ineffective Hartpury defence.
However Protheroe then produced the highlight of the game. Receiving the ball from a Loughborough clearance in his own half, he ran the ball back. After cutting in-field, his chip ahead was perfectly weighted and a good bounce allowed him to finish under the posts.
Any thoughts of Hartpury pulling away were dispelled as Loughborough took control of the game for long periods. Beckett collected a second try as the defence finally cracked, to make it 35-24, but after all their hard work, Hartpury were soon in again.
The ball was moved left from a breakdown near the visiting 22 and Protheroe was on hand to complete his hat-trick, gliding untouched through the Loughborough defence.
A late try from scrum-half Danny Pointon was not quite enough for Students to add a losing bonus point, but they left in the knowledge that they had played a full part in an open and entertaining encounter.
Hartpury, meanwhile, contemplate a visit to former giants Moseley as they seek to create history by completing an unbeaten season.
Hartpury: Hudson, Cochrane, Leonard (Try 37), Eves, Mikalcius (Tries 8, 17), Protheroe (Tries 24, 43, 72), Shaw (Cons 9, 18, 25, 38, 44); Flook, Taylor, Thompson, Batley, Dancer, Polledri, Gilbert, Oakley. Replacements: Stephenson, Barron, Brockett, Chan, Abrahams
Loughborough Students: Edwards (Try 34), Loizias, Segun, Currie, Beckett (Tries 41, 68), Waters (Cons 42, 69, 79), Pointon (Try 78); Brugnara, Lynch, Davis, Lasis, Wheadon, Berry (Try 15), Keunen, Frost. Replacements: King, Christie, Obano, Pitfield, Olowofela
Referee: Mr Adam Leal