Rugby returned to the Gillmans Ground for the first time in almost four months, but it was as though last season had never ended as Hartpury ran in a bag-full of tries to comfortably see off an opponent that has traditionally made life hard for the Red & Blacks.
Although it is dangerous to read too much into pre-season results, there is a definite air of optimism surrounding the squad. Building on the solid foundations established in last weekend’s visit to Worcester Warriors, an aggressive and dominant pack ensured a handy supply of ball for a back division that has the potential to trouble many teams in the months ahead.
With a playing surface that resembled a newly-laid carpet and clear conditions overhead, the only factor to be taken into account was strong wind blowing the length of the pitch. Hartpury played into this in the first half and, with kicking rarely an option, ran Park ragged with pace and accuracy.
Clearly, there have been some significant personnel changes since last term. The front row now features two props, Dan Murphy and Rupert Harden, with significant top level experience and the scrum quickly became a weapon as Park were hammered in the early set pieces.
Harry Randall, who should be available to Hartpury on a long-term basis, was a great asset at half-back while James Williams, Moseley’s player of the year last season, was constant threat in midfield.
It was another new boy, also signed from the Birmingham side, who opened the scoring early. It all started with a muscular lineout steal from RFC debutant Alex Craig – who had an exceptional 80 minutes overall – before the ball was eventually worked to winger Ed Sheldon to pick up his second try of pre-season.
The forwards were enjoying themselves and another score came in the seventh minute. A series of attacking scrums had the Londoners creaking and it was no great surprise when referee Michael Hudson ran under the posts to award a penalty try.
With 10 minutes on the clock, it looked as though a rout was in the making. This time Williams did the damage, spotting the gap well and slipping through some fairly ineffectual Park defence before his inside ball gave Randall an easy finish for his first.
Park, stung by events, did manage to work their way back into the game and enjoyed a good period of possession. When Hartpury were penalised at the breakdown deep in their own 22, the following lineout drive was finished by Maurice Nwakor to make it 21-5.
Normal service was soon resumed. Darrel Dyer, another newcomer making a big impact, stormed out of defence with a 40 metre charge. With the ball worked wide, Sheldon still had plenty to do but he had the pace and footwork to bamboozle the Park cover and head to the posts (pictured).
Minutes later Dyer was involved again, but it was Harry Cochrane who was the chief architect, coming off his wing to knife through the Park defence before setting up Randall for his second.
To their credit, it was Park who concluded the first half scoring, fly-half Harry Leonard crossing in the corner after some good interplay up the right wing, to make it 33-12 at the break.
Randall completed his hat-trick eight minutes after the restart, sniping artfully off the back of a big forward drive – his last act before being replaced by another promising youngster, Charlie Chapman.
The performance lost some of it’s cohesion as Hartpury emptied their sixteen-man bench, but there were still moments to admire and Alex Craig capped his man-of-the-match display with two tries.
The first came after replacement hooker, Luke Stratford, stunned the healthy crowd with a long range burst, almost to the Park try line, while the second came from a barrelling finish after some strong drives featuring the work of flanker Mat Gilbert.
Hartpury then rubbed salt into Park’s wounds with two scores in the closing moments of the match. Another back-row man, Tom Pashley, had a breakthrough season in student rugby last year and capped a good display here with a powerful finish.
Finally, as Park gamely tried to run out defence, winger Elias Caven was alert to the chance of an interception, Perry’s final conversion ending proceedings.
Given that Rosslyn Park had run Hartpury very close in both encounters last season, it is a reasonable conclusion that Hartpury’s summer recruitment has put them in good shape for the challenges ahead.
There will be another benchmark of that progress when the squad visit Kingsholm on Friday, and a real acid test on September 3rd, with an opening weekend visit to red-hot Championship favourites, Bristol. Time will tell.
One man who was generally happy, although not without some reservations, was Hartpury head coach, Mark Cornwell. “We started out really well, playing into the wind, and got out to a 30-point lead”, he said. “After that I think one or two of the lads started to think it was a Barbarians-style game and we lost a bit of structure.
On the plus side, we didn’t concede in the second half and there were some good individual performances. I thought Alex Craig was outstanding in the second row and Tom Pashley made a big impact when he came on in the second half.
We’re in a good place going into Friday’s game with Gloucester and after that we’ll know a lot more about selection for the Bristol match.”
Hartpury: Wilcox, Cochrane, Eves, Williams, Sheldon, Perry, Randall; Murphy, Tanner, Harden, Craig, Oakley, Grieve, Langley, Dyer. Replacements: Crane, Stratford, Merrey, Seville, Heard, Gibson, Quinn, Dancer, Gilbert, Pashley, Chapman, Boulton, Forrester, Ducker, Caven, Leeming.
Rosslyn Park: Robinson, Crane, Henderson, Barnes, Marfo, Leonard, Weir; Nwakor, Gibson, Gratton, Spivey, Boyle, Frampton, Thomas, Taggart. Replacements: Bellamy, Wade, Spencer, Brand, Atkins, Dudman-Jones, Higgins, Hudson, Grey, Crow, Smith, Hutson, Vaughan-Edwards
Referee: Michael Hudson