This was a poor match, featuring two teams who failed to get the pulses racing at any point throughout the 80 minutes.
Doncaster – while offering relatively little going forward – made marginally fewer errors which, added to an advantage at the set piece, was enough see them take the four points. A late try, scored on a rare visit into the home 22, was enough to deny Hartpury even a losing bonus point.
The Red & Blacks had far more of the ball and – in the times when the play wasn’t mired in the middle of the park – also had the edge in terms of territory. But mistakes at key moments, and a lack of any sort of cutting edge, undermined their efforts.
This was a game that Hartpury had targeted as a potential win, so it was doubly disappointing to come away with nothing. They will reflect that an injury-hit Doncaster were certainly ‘there for the taking’ in a season in which, like last, every point will be precious.
The starting line-up had a decent look to it. Despite a lack of fit lock forwards, the starting duo of Justin Clegg and Chunya Munga (pictured, courtesy of LNC Images) – both newly dual-registered from Worcester and London Irish respectively – formed a hefty combination.
The rest of the match-day squad also looked useful, with youth across the 23 balanced by experience in the form of skipper Luke Carter, prop Dan Murphy and flanker Akapusi Qera.
In good conditions, Hartpury started the stronger and were playing most of the rugby in the Doncaster half, without creating clear-cut chances. Josh Bragman had what looked like a straightforward opportunity to open the scoring, but pushed his early penalty wide of the uprights.
The hosts did build a head of steam towards the end of the first quarter and, amid a regular flow of penalties, Doncaster’s Matt Challinor collected a yellow card.
Hartpury kicked to the corner and, despite making heavy weather of getting their drive going, it was Munga who eventually opened the scoring. Bragman was again off-target with his kick.
Clegg, unfortunately, got a knock to the head in the build up to the try and played no further part in the match.
George Simpson was having a useful game at full-back for Hartpury, but made an unforced error nine minutes later when failing to hold on to a fairly routine box-kick from Knights’ Tom James.
The scrum became a penalty and, after the Knights had kicked to the corner, it was a former Hartpury player, hooker Ben Hunter, who finished the drive to level things up. Sam Olver added the extras to nudge his team ahead.
The game continued to stutter for long periods. Olver and Bragman exchanged penalties after the break and Hartpury had an opportunity, which came to nothing, when Gloucester youngster Jack Reeves made a rare line break off a planned move.
Olver stretched the lead to 8-13 with another simple penalty for offside in the 57th minute, but it was still the home team who were having the lion’s share of the play.
For all their efforts, they rarely threatened and they were made to pay the price for their lack of penetration as the game drew towards a close.
Penalties gave the Knights field position deep in the home 22. Will Safe appeared to have snuffed out the danger with a lineout steal but was adjudged to have knocked on. Doncaster drove from the base of the scrum and, when the ball was shipped infield, centre Pete Lucock had a simple finish from close range.
Seb Nagle-Taylor had a good all-round game for Hartpury, carrying strongly and looking particularly effective under the Knights repetitive box kicking. However, with a trip to Newcastle next on the agenda, Hartpury will need more of his team-mates to step up.
Hartpury’s Director of Rugby, John Barnes, is well aware of how important home wins will be this season and was frank in his assessment of his team’s performance. “We were hugely disappointed,” he said. “It was bad enough not to win the game, but obviously even worse to lose the bonus point right at the end.”
“Doncaster didn’t try too much, but were good enough at what they did and had the better of the set piece – that’s why we lost the game.”
Hartpury’s next home game is a ‘Friday Night Lights’ fixture against Nottingham – who they have beaten at home in both of the last two seasons – on Friday 25th October.
Hartpury: Simpson, Goatley, Reeves, Margetts, Henry, Bragman (Pen 47), Carter; Murphy, Tanner, Gibson, Clegg, Munga (Try 20), Qera, Safe, Nagle-Taylor. Bench: Crane, Merrey, Challenger, Everard, Preece, Cochrane, Forrester, Wilcox.
Knights: McPhillips, Evans, Hayes, Lucock (Try 79), Wilson, Olver (Cons 29, 79. Pens 42, 57), James; Hislop, Hunter (Try 29), Quigley, Challinor, Smith, Edgson, Hills, Pitman. Bench: Holling, Foster Thomas, Eames, Sproston, Pocklington, Lewis, Foley.
Referee: Greg MacDonald