For the third week running, Hartpury were able to take some encouragement from a game that got away from them on the scoreboard.
Despite three defeats in the Championship Cup, Hartpury will reflect that they have rotated heavily over that time and there is a sense that – provided they can something like their preferred 23 together – they will be able to compete with many of their Championship peers.
Falcons, of course, do not fall into that category. The former Premiership side still retain plenty of elite firepower and it will be a major surprise if they are not celebrating a return to the top flight in May.
In this game they took the majority of the chances that were on offer and 14 points in the final 10 minutes produced a score-line that was, arguably, harsh on the home side. Hartpury, as in the previous two games, saw plenty of the ball and were competitive in many facets of play, but lacked a killer touch and were undermined by occasional errors.
The positives were the step up from last week’s performance against Jersey, a generally solid set piece and enough good individual displays to provide cause for optimism going forward.
The major negative continued to be a high – if improved – error count. Add to that a concerning list of injury issues, with two players – Tom Jubb and Rupert Harden – being forced to miss the game after training on Friday, plus a worrying casualty count during the match itself.
Hooker Will Crane was gone by the 12th minute after taking nasty, if purely accidental, blow to the throat and winger Jake Henry was not risked beyond the break after aggravating an ankle early in the game.
Young Gloucester lock, Harry Butler, who was making an encouraging first start of the season for Hartpury, was another to be forced off, early in the second half.
The opening exchanges were promising. The forwards quickly settled into their task, providing a good platform for outside half, Joshua Bragman, to bring his three-quarters into the game or use his strong boot to good effect.
Two early lineout steals and a rock-solid scrum also showed that Hartpury could compete at the set piece.
After a lively and positive opening therefore, it was disappointing that the visitors were three tries ahead by the 23rd minute, although much of this was due to good play from the Falcons rather than any Hartpury failing.
Back-row forward, Simon Uzokwe, who Hartpury know well from his time at Darlington Mowden Park in National One, was the creator for the first, when his powerful burst through the midfield gave scrum-half Sam Stuart a comfortable finish.
Five minutes later, Falcons launched an attack from deep in their own 22. Ben Stevenson carried the ball out, before some clever interplay in which wing Alex Tait was prominent, created another simple run-in, this time for Joel Hodgson, who also converted.
Hartpury’s old uncertainties returned when a charged-down kick provided Stevenson with an easy score early in the second quarter, but the Red & Blacks were still giving a good account of themselves in general play.
They finally got some reward before the half-hour mark.
Electing to scrum a penalty in front of the Falcons posts, a good ‘nudge’ lead to a further infringement. Scrummaging again, skipper Luke Carter found young centre, Joe Margetts, at first receiver, and the recent graduate had the power to smash his way over from 15 metres for his first RFC try (pictured – courtesy of LNC Images).
Margetts went on to be named as Hartpury’s Man of the Match, after a robust performance on both sides of the ball.
Kyle Cooper picked up the bonus point for Falcons from a 36th minute lineout drive, but Hartpury were able to add to their tally before the break.
Again the forwards played their part in a series of drives close to the Falcons’ line. With the half-time ‘gong’ already sounded, it looked as though the chance might slip away before Akapusi Qera finally bundled across the whitewash.
It was an uplifting finish to the first half and the second period saw an equally competitive start before a yellow card changed the complexion of the game.
Will Safe went in for a tackle on the ball, but slipped higher and was adjudged as have committed foul play by Premiership referee, Ian Tempest.
He got the card and, with Butler already off the field, the home team suddenly found themselves under-powered up front.
Falcons replacement, Malakai Wacokecoke, ran a great support line to finish in the 50th minute and, when Hartpury lost their composure three minutes later, they were back deep in their own 22.
The hosts defended the initial lineout drive, but were exposed when – after play moved in-field – Joel Hodgson was able to cut back into a big gap on the narrow side.
In truth, the remainder of the home performance did not match what had gone before, as Hartpury’s composure, discipline and shape all suffered. From the bench, Ashley Challenger made a good impression at tight-head while Henry’s replacement, George Simpson, also caught the eye, in particular with a searing 40 metre break.
A late try for the impressive Uzokwe and a good individual effort from Tom Penny put the icing on the cake for the visitors.
Hartpury have maintained that the league is their major focus this season and that challenge begins in earnest next week, when Doncaster Knights visit the ALPAS Arena in the opening round. The Red & Blacks will be hoping that the current injuries are not too serious and that they can get something close to their strongest selection on the pitch.
Hartpury: Wilcox, Goatley, Reeves, Margetts (Try 28), Henry, Bragman (Cons 28, 40), Carter; Murphy, Crane, Gibson, Batley, Butler, Qera (Try 40), Clementson, Safe. Bench: Tanner, Flook, Challenger, Nagle-Taylor, Preece, Cochrane, Forrester, Simpson.
Falcons: Swiel, Tait, Stevenson (Try 23), Penny (Try 74), Arscott, Hodgson (Tries 16, 53. Cons 11, 16, 23, 53), Stuart (Try 11); Davison, Cooper (Try 36), Ah You, Barry, de Chaves, Chick, Hardie, Uzokwe (Try 71). Maddison, Lockwood, Daniels, Robinson, Collett, Nordli-Kelemeti, Connon (cons 71, 14), Wacokecoke (Try 50).
Referee: Ian Tempest