Hartpury enjoyed their final home outing of 2019 with this bonus-point win – their first ever in two seasons of Championship Cup rugby – over an injury-depleted Doncaster Knights.
Despite the result, the Knights will progress into the knock-out stages of the competition. Ampthill’s win over Bedford brought the two teams level on points, but Knights progress on the basis of more tries scored in the pool games.
The match was played in fine conditions after a week of rain in Gloucestershire, a stiff breeze being the only element to influence play.
Hartpury, who were much changed after last week’s trip to Jersey, had first use of the wind and, with the right boot of fly half Joshua Bragman (pictured, LNC Images) in good working order, had opened up a respectable advantage by the break.
Both sides found handling difficult early on and the set pieces were equally scruffy, with almost all of the early scrummages resulting in some sort of intervention by referee Benjamin Russell.
It was from a Doncaster transgression that Bragman got an early chance to put the home team on the scoreboard, striking the ball cleanly from 35 metres after the Knights’ front row had been penalised.
The opening stages were summed up moments later. Hartpury, not for the last time in the game, made a hash of the restart, conceding a penalty in the process. Knights’ Steve McColl, in turn, over-cooked his kick to the corner, sending the ball dead in an episode that left coaches, on both sides, shaking their heads.
It was Hartpury who were playing the better rugby and Bragman extended the lead in the 13th minute, with another well-struck penalty.
Will Safe, who produced another strong performance standing in at lock, made a good break through the midfield ten minutes later and, after Knights were penalised at the breakdown, Bragman stepped up to make it 9-0.
First-half points were important, given the strength of the breeze, and there was a sense that that Hartpury may have been missing their chance, until they put together their best attack of the game with the half-hour approaching.
Dan Koster made the initial break, before handing the ball off to a rampaging Joe Batley (pictured, LNC Images). With the Hartpury forwards once again able to recycle quickly, Bragman eventually had the simple task of scoring unopposed in the corner.
His subsequent touch-line conversion meant that he had all sixteen of the Hartpury points so far and he made it three more with another penalty in the 34th minute.
The cushion should have settled Hartpury, but they were untidy in dealing with a loose ball on their own 22 as the break approached. Playing penalty advantage, the Knights put a kick behind the home defence and Tyson Lewis had a simple finish, to give his side some encouragement.
The conversion was skewed wide by Olver, but his opposite number showed no such generosity when Doncaster were penalised again, on the stroke of half-time, and his confident kick made it Bragman 22 – Knights 5 at the interval.
The second half continued at a high tempo, particularly in the final quarter as the Knights tried to find a way back into the match. There were still plenty of mistakes, but also plenty to warm the pre-Christmas crowd.
Robbie Smith, stepping up from university rugby as an early replacement, featured strongly in a Hartpury attack that almost went the length, before the home forwards finally got in on the scoring, flanker Jack Preece finishing a powerful lineout drive.
Doncaster responded in the same fashion a few minutes later, Colin Quigley the scorer, and this time Olver was on target with his conversion from wide out.
Smith eventually got his first try, at this level, in the 63rd minute. With the ball inside the Knights’ 22, full-back Mike Wilcox realised the opportunity and made the extra man on the narrow side, his well-timed pass giving the young wing the opportunity for a typically powerful finish (pictured, below, LNC Images).
At 32-12, Hartpury should have been cruising, but a late Knights rally saw forward Rory Pitman stretch out to score from close range, minutes after a penalty lineout was worked back to the narrow side for Tyson Lewis to pick up his second try.
With the clock ticking down, there might have been a nervous finish but for an interception score from man-of-the-match, Seb Nagle-Taylor, which finally put the result beyond doubt.
There was further cause for satisfaction during the game, as both Iain Grieve and Rob Fuller made returns from long-term injuries.
“It was nice to finally win a Cup game,” said Hartpury DoR, John Barnes. “We’ve scored four tries and brought some guys back from injury, so it’s been a good day for us.
“A lot of the guys performed well today and that creates competition for places, which is exactly what we want.”
Hartpury’s final game before Christmas is back in the Championship, when they travel to Cornish Pirates next Sunday.
Hartpury: Wilcox, Simpson, Koster, Margetts, Henry, Bragman (Try 29, Con 30, Pens 5, 13, 24, 34,39), Carter; Murphy, Crane, Gibson, Batley, Safe, Qera, Preece (Try 54), Nagle-Taylor (Try 76). Bench. Everard, Merrey, Challenger, Fuller, Grieve, Clementson, Smith (Try 63), Cochrane.
Doncaster: McColl, Packman, Roberts, Hayes, Lewis (Tries 37, 69), Olver (Cons 55, 69), James; Thomas, Edgson, Suter, Challinor, Pitman (Try 74), Conradie, Lokotui, Calladine. Bench: Hunter, Hislop, Quigley (Try 55), Hudson, Sproston, Pocklington, Foley, Cowell.
Referee: Benjamin Russell