Hartpury bulldozed their way into 2017 with another emphatic bonus-point win, against a game but ultimately out-classed Esher.
Any concerns that the Christmas break might have upset the rhythm of the College side were quickly dispelled, as they blasted into an early lead and had racked up 40 points by the half-time whistle.
Seventeen wins from seventeen starts is the current tally for a team that appears to be easing its way towards promotion into the Green King IPA Premiership, as contenders fall away.
With a 23-point cushion over nearest rivals Moseley and thirteen games to play, Hartpury’s exceptional form seems likely to carry them into the top 24 of English rugby come April.
Continuity in selection is a great advantage for any team looking to maintain a run of form and Hartpury were able to name a familiar-looking fifteen for this clash with a side whose own focus is now on events at the other end of the National One table.
The versatile James Stephenson started at open-side in the absence of the injured Mat Gilbert whilst, elsewhere, fly half Adam Hastings and lock Ben Chan were rotated in to replace Jacob Perry and Joe Dancer respectively.
What never changes about Hartpury is the way they approach the game and, given a dry, calm day, there was every likelihood that they would want to run the ball.
Two tries in the opening five minutes were the result, as Esher were left chasing shadows in the early passages of play. Hooker Will Tanner was the creator after two minutes, when his ability to spot a gap put Jonas Mikalcius in with a chance from half way.
The big winger needed no second invitation as his sheer physicality took him past the Esher cover defence and in at the corner. Hastings opened his account for the day with a touchline conversion.
Moments later, Hastings was crossing for a try of his own, as the visiting defence was shredded, and had no trouble with a simple kick for a 14-0 lead.
Fears were high for the visitors at this stage but, to their credit, they rallied sufficiently for scrum half Andrew Garner to pick up a try on the heels of a driven lineout. However, normal service was quickly resumed, as Hartpury’s running game continued to impress.
A high up-and-under was allowed to bounce in the middle of the park before being swallowed up by the Hartpury chasers. Several phases later, centre Luke Eves was the eventual beneficiary, after the Esher defence had been stretched beyond breaking.
Moments afterward Mikalcius, showing an appetite to come off his wing in search of the ball, picked up his second try after slick hands from Steve Leonard and Mike Wilcox gave him the chance to power over. The four-try bonus point had arrived at the end of the first quarter.
Five minutes later, it was the turn of the forwards, as a penalty kicked into the visitors’ 22 allowed them to set up the drive. Will Tanner was rewarded for his fine display by getting the final touch.
More good work from the pack on the half hour mark led to a simple finish for Hastings and Hartpury were contemplating a cricket score.
However, the game became loose and, with Hartpury down to fourteen following a yellow card to Hastings, Esher were able to take advantage when a penalty in the middle of the pitch was quickly tapped by Garner and the defence was nowhere as he fed Tom Williams to run under the posts.
The second half started in much the same way as the first. Good work from the three-quarters saw Hartpury sweep the length of the field before nippy scrum half Harry Randall was in at the corner. Wilcox, in place of Hastings, struck a sweet conversion.
The overall quality of the Hartpury performance did slip a little after the break. With the outcome long decided, the match became slightly scrappy and Esher’s commendable persistence saw them grab two further tries through winger Tom James and centre Joe Brown – the latter coming after some slack defending.
Most of the moments of quality continued to come from the hosts, however. Winger Levi Davis picked up his first try for the club (pictured) when he finished another outstanding attack orchestrated by Mikalcius and Leonard, before all-action flanker Jake Polledri picked up two tries in the final 10 minutes to round things off.
Defeats for challengers Plymouth and Ampthill strengthened Hartpury’s position at the top of the league as they prepare for a trip north to Fylde next Saturday.
Hartpury: Wilcox (Con 42), Davis (Try 55), Leonard, Eves (Try 19), Mikalcius (Tries 2, 20), Hastings (Tries 5, 29; Cons 3, 5, 19, 26, 30, 56, 80) , Randall (Try 41); Flook, Tanner (Try 25), Brockett, Chan, Oakley, Polledri (Tries 72,80), Stephenson, Safe. Replacements: Merrey, Thompson, Quinn, Shaw, Perry
Esher: Ibitoye, Williams (Try 34), Brown (Try 68), Stanley, James (Try 45), Roberts (Cons 35, 69), Garner (Try 15); Furey, Sweeney, Zeiss, Marriott, Gentles, White, Gossington, Seccombe. Replacements: Leigh, O’Connell, Yellowlees, Boatman, Waters.
Referee: Michael Hudson