London Irish collected a bonus point win in the first Championship match between these two clubs – both previous, recent encounters coming in the Cup competition – despite a spirited performance from the Red & Blacks.
The Exiles were strong in defence and generally clinical with the ball in hand, showing enough to be good value for their victory and having wrapped up the extra point before half-time.
Hartpury will not be unhappy with their overall performance against the leaders, although they will be disappointed that a solitary try was their only reward on a night when they enjoyed plenty of possession.
They will also reflect that tries at the ‘death’, in both halves, created a score-line that was perhaps harsher than their efforts deserved.
The match was played in perfect conditions on a cool, clear night. The home team were happy to welcome back Number 8, Iain Grieve, after a lengthy lay-off, while senior players Dan Murphy and Steve Leonard were also continuing to work their way back after injury.
The game saw a league debut for former Gloucester star, Akapusi Qera, while – at the other end of the experience spectrum – teenage Gloucester academy prop and Hartpury student, Olly Adkins, was also making a first appearance from the bench.
It was Irish who quickly got the scoreboard moving, with two tries in the opening quarter.
An early attacking lineout – after a delay for a serious-looking injury to Exiles’ former Gloucester hooker, Motu Matu’u – was a little scrappy, but the visitors recovered the ball and wing Matt Williams was quick to come inside and exploit a gap in the home defence.
The second score came after Hartpury had controlled the ball for a long period and starkly illustrated the difference between the teams.
While the hosts struggled to make any headway with phase after phase of possession – even losing ground in the face of some heavy-tackling and well-organised Irish defence – the visitors launched a lightning counter through Luke McLean and Topsy Ojo.
Although the former England man could not quite finish things off, Irish recycled quickly and well, producing an easy finish for scrum-half, Ben Meehan.
Pace and penetration were again evident 10 minutes later, when Italian international McLean ended a kicking duel by floating a pass wide to former Northampton centre, Tom Stephenson. He had the wheels to sprint 30 metres to the corner, before another former Saint, Stephen Myler, offset an earlier surprising miss with an impressive touch-line conversion.
Hartpury continued to battle and spent the next few minutes camped inside the visitors 22.
Eventually a series of infringements in the ‘red zone’ brought a yellow card for Exiles’ lock Franco van de Merwe and, from another attacking line-out, prop Dan Murphy was soon on hand to drive over, ensuring that Hartpury got some reward for their efforts.
At 19-5 with half-time looming and with plenty of the ball, the hosts were still very much in the game. But Hartpury have developed a nasty habit of conceding late tries, which was to surface again almost immediately.
Myler hung up a perfect restart for his team to chase. The ball came back on the Irish side and, a handful of short phases later, David Porecki – the replacement for Matu’u – was celebrating a simple finish.
It looked as though Irish might run away with the game when a good attack saw Ojo score in acres of space with only four minutes of the second half played. However, the second half developed into a more even affair, as Hartpury further stepped up their effort and started to match the Exiles in terms of physicality.
Steve Leonard and Luke Eves both made powerful runs in midfield, but the biggest excitement came when Grieve, enjoying a strong return, made a big bust through the middle from Hartpury’s well-functioning line-out (pictured). Unfortunately, his off-load did not quite go to hand and the chance was gone.
The remainder of the match fell into something of a pattern, as Hartpury continued to find it difficult to make the most of the possession that they had, whilst Irish seemed content to pose a threat on the counter.
The game ended with another late Exiles try, a penalty kicked to the 22 setting up the opportunity for the forwards to drive towards the line before replacement half-back, Scott Steele, nipped over.
Director of Rugby, John Barnes, remained positive. “As we expected, it was a very tough game. We won’t face a better team this season and I was happy that we fought well for the whole 80 minutes. Our younger players can take a lot away from this experience, particularly in terms of game management.”
Hartpury now get another weekend off, before a potentially important visit to London Scottish on Friday, 11th January. January and February see a number of clashes that the club will be targeting as they look to climb away from the foot of the table.
Hartpury: Wilcox, Foley, Leonard, Eves, Seabrook, Leeming, Bolt; Murphy (Try 37), Tanner, Harden, Quinn, Linsell, Qera, Pashley, Grieve. Reps: Stratford, Flook, Adkins, Kelland, Stephenson, Chapman, Henry.
Irish: McLean, Ojo (Try 43), Mulchrone, Stephenson (Try 29), Williams (Try 6), Myler (Cons 20, 30, 40, 44), Meehan (Try 20); Hobbs-Awoyemi, Matu’u, Cilliers, Van de Merwe, Teofilo, McNally, Gilsenan, Rogerson. Reps: Porecki (Try 40), Elrington, Chawatama, Schatz, Treviranus, Steele (Try 79), Campbell.
Referee: Greg MacDonald