After a late-season revival, Hartpury finally assured themselves of Championship rugby next season with this exciting, if nervy, win over London Scottish.
Adrift in January, Hartpury gave themselves hope with a victory over Richmond in mid-February and, apart from away defeats to the league’s top two teams, have gone on to win every game since.
Saturday’s performance was far from perfect but Hartpury’s forwards proved, as they have done in many recent matches, that they are more than a match for most packs in the Championship.
The game was played in perfect weather and a dry pitch provided an ideal surface for the speed merchants on both sides. Hartpury had added zip in their ranks, as scrum-half Ben Vellacott returned after missing the trip to London Irish last week.
He was joined in the backs by centre, Steve Leonard, whose injury problems have been well-documented. As it happened, Leonard was on the field for all but the last three minutes of this match and brought an added edge to the Hartpury attack.
The pack was bolstered by the return of lock Alex Craig and the appearance – for the second time this season – of former student Lewis Ludlow. The dual-registered Gloucester flanker was to have a major impact on the match, alongside his back-row colleague, Sam Graham.
Despite the conditions, the first half was attritional, as Hartpury sought to use their driving forwards to the best effect.
They were rewarded as early as the 3rd minute, when a series of thrusts ended with Graham crashing through a tackle to score from close range. Leeming converted, as he did for all but one of Hartpury’s six tries.
However, the Red & Blacks quickly conceded an unnecessary penalty in midfield, which Scottish sent deep into the 22. Although Hartpury held the Exiles’ drive, they were out-matched when the ball was shipped wide for winger Rob Stevenson score in the corner.
The hosts then had their most dominant period of the game, as Scottish struggled to build on the foothold that the try had given.
A lineout on the visitors 22, in the 11th minute, was driven towards the try-line. The initial surge made ground, after which Hartpury were content to pick and go. Eventually, it was the familiar figure of hooker Will Tanner who emerged with the try.
Hartpury were 14-5 ahead and looking in control, with Graham, Craig and skipper Simon Linsell all carrying hard. Only a series of frustrating handling errors was stopping them from adding to the score.
Just as it seemed that they might go unrewarded, Ludlow – whose earlier charge-down of a clearance kick had created the opportunity for the Tanner try – popped up on the end of yet another drive to extend the lead.
A comfortable interval advantage beckoned, but there was still a twist in the tale of the half.
Hartpury missed a tackle on half-way and Scottish centre Tom Fowlie took full advantage. Although he could not quite go all the way, his off-load was shipped wide right to give Stevenson his second run-in of the day.
If that was a disappointment for the Red & Blacks, they shook it off early in the second half.
The creator was number 8 Graham, who picked a great line to launch a burst up the middle of the pitch (pictured – LNC Images). Hartpury were quick to recycle at the breakdown and there was Ludlow to crash under the posts for his second of the day.
Three minutes later, Hartpury got a gift. The Exiles were trying to pay their way out from deep in their own half when the ball was spun wide.
Hartpury’s Ben Foley was alert to the opportunity and his interception left him with a 25-metre sprint to the line. Leeming’s conversion made it 35-12 and, suddenly, Hartpury could contemplate the finishing line.
The game then entered a frenetic phase that played right into the hands of the fleet-footed Scottish backs. Full-back Charlie Ingall came more into the match and looked dangerous whenever he had the ball.
Eventually, it was another flyer, winger Miles Mantella, who found space behind the defence to streak in for a Scottish try. When he repeated the feat, nine minutes later, the gap was down to 12 points and the healthy home crowd were starting to have doubts.
Hartpury restored some control with 14 minutes to play – Leeming landing a well-struck penalty to re-establish the two-try cushion – and it was appropriate that the home pack then had the final word.
A penalty was kicked to the 22m line and Hartpury got a strong drive from the lineout. The shove made ten metres before replacement flanker, Rob Langley, peeled away to do rest on his own.
The joy at the final whistle was unconfined and Hartpury can now go into next week’s final fixture, at Yorkshire Carnegie, in the knowledge that they have earned another season at this level.
Hartpury: Wilcox, Foley (Try 45), Leonard, Eves, Henry, Leeming, Vellacott; Murphy, Tanner (Try 11), Harden, Craig, Linsell, Qera, Ludlow (Tries 38, 42), Graham (Try 3). Bench: Stratford, Merrey, Armstrong, Langley (Try 70), Grieve, Cochrane, Forrester.
L Scottish: Ingall, Stevenson (Tries 8, 40), Beattie, Fowlie, Mantella (Tries 52, 61), Hart (Con 40), Barton; Harris, Saunders, Palframan, Vukasinovic, Eliet, Wynne, Atkinson, Bright. Bench: Adams, Brodley, Cringle, Hodge, Tyas, Brand, Davidson.
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys