Hartpury ran in six tries to register their eighth successive bonus point win since the start of the season. In doing so, they dented the hopes of one of their promotion rivals and maintained a seven-point lead at the top of the table.
In truth, despite the significance of the result, this was not their best performance and Ampthill, having been blown away by Hartpury’s dynamic start, almost got themselves back within touching distance before a late flourish put the result to bed.
But to be overly critical would be unfair when considering a match in which the home side produced some exhilarating passages of play, with five of the tries coming from exciting, running rugby.
Conditions could hardly have been better and the return, for the first time this season, of former student Mat Protheroe was well-timed. George Boulton was back after injury, replacing the absent Steve Leonard, while Harry Cochrane stepped in on the wing.
The pack looked reassuringly familiar, the only change being the return of Will Tanner at hooker. The hard-working back row of Mat Gilbert, Jake Polledri and Will Safe remained intact from last week and all three had excellent games against a strong Ampthill unit.
Ampthill had beaten Hartpury in their last encounter, back in March, but no such outcome was looking likely after a dizzying first quarter in which the hosts threatened to run riot.
Pressure brought opportunities almost immediately and, running the ball at every opportunity, Hartpury could have had more than two early Protheroe penalty kicks for their dominance. But then three tries came in a five-minute burst and it seemed that the flood-gates might open.
First, a penalty try was awarded when a driving maul was halted illegally on the Ampthill line, before the Hartpury three-quarters constructed a beauty to extend the advantage.
Protheroe, spotting winger Jonas Mikalcius in space, floated a lovely cross-field kick that fell perfectly for him to take without breaking stride. Faced with the cover defence, Mikalcius had the vison to switch the ball back inside to supporting centre Boulton, who celebrated his return to health by sprinting 40 metres for the score.
Just two more minutes had passed before Hartpury were at it again. Fielding a clearing kick, full-back Mike Wilcox launched an attack up the right wing. He was stopped, but quick ball was moved the back the other way as Protheroe, Luke Eves, Polledri and skipper Rhys Oakley all showed good hands to put Mikalcius into space.
As we have seen many times before, he needs no further encouragement and had the power and the pace to beat the cover tackle of former Tongan international Maama Molitika before running around the defence and under the posts.
27 points down with 20 minutes played, it seemed possible that a shell-shocked Ampthill could fold. To their immense credit, and despite further Hartpury pressure that almost saw a Will Safe try, they did not.
Slowly but surely they worked their way back into the match and spent the final 10 minutes of the half deep in Hartpury territory, aided by a number of penalties kicked into the corner.
It was now Hartpury’s turn to defend, which they did with spirit and organisation, but it was no great surprise when referee O’Grady took them back under their posts on the stroke of half-time, a penalty try having been awarded at a scrum close to the line.
Ampthill also started the second period the better. Hartpury conceded possession deep in their own half and prop Brett Sturgess was on hand to finish off a series of strong drives. With Steffan Jones landing his second conversion for 27-14, it was clear that one further score would have them right back in the mix.
It didn’t come, largely due to some strong Hartpury defence and a lack of guile and penetration on the part of the visitors, as the game entered a slightly scrappy phase in which both sides made plenty of mistakes.
Protheroe settled the nerves somewhat with his third penalty, before a final quarter flourish saw Hartpury stretch away.
Outstanding scrum-half Harry Randall and then Jake Polledri made big inroads before good hands, from Eves again, saw the ball back with Mikalcius. As before, he had too much for the defence, this time cutting back inside to wrong-foot the cover and score.
Protheroe was the provider moments later. With the option of Mikalcius outside him, his footwork and pace shredded the Ampthill rear-guard before an inside ball put Randall away under the posts. There was just time for Mikalcius to complete his hat-trick, however, again finishing well after being put clear following a scrummage ball taken against the feed – one for the front row to enjoy!
Elsewhere, Birmingham Moseley and Blackheath kept the pressure on the leaders with bonus point wins over Old Albanian and Cambridge respectively. Plymouth Albion slipped to their second defeat of the season, victims to a late, late Will Maisey penalty at Coventry.
Loughborough Students continued their good season with a four-try win over DMP which sees them rise to sixth in the table, but it was Esher who topped the scoring charts at the weekend by running in 11 tries to see off bottom club Blaydon 71-24.
Fylde were 38-17 winners in the West Coast/East Coast battle at the Woodlands, their third win in four games since visiting Hartpury, and Rosslyn Park picked up their first away win of 2016-17 at Macclesfield.
Hartpury now take their unbeaten record to Cambridge in the next round. That game will kick off at 3pm at Volac Park, Grantchester Road, Cambridge, CB3 9ED – all support most welcome.
Hartpury: Wilcox, Cochrane, Boulton (Try 18), Eves, Mikalcius (Tries 20, 65, 78), Protheroe (Cons 15, 18, 20, 65, 70; Pens 3, 12), Randall (Try 69); Flook, Tanner, Thompson, Oakley, Dancer, Polledri, Gilbert, Safe. Replacements: Stephenson, Merrey, Brockett, Chan, Perry (also Penalty Try, 15)
Ampthill: Lynch, Weightman, Hanks, Jones (Cons 40, 42), Baker, Tarrant, Williams; Sturgess (Try 42), Fish, Lutui, Walker, Gulliver, Bell, Bercis, M Molitika. Replacements: Beesley, Collins, L Molitika, Wilson, Reeder (also Penalty Try, 40)