Hartpury stayed in contact with National League One leaders Richmond courtesy of this entertaining, and ultimately comprehensive, win at Loughborough.
They trail the Londoners by 10 points with four games remaining, including a visit by Richmond to the college in two weeks’ time.
The last two league wins over Loughborough had been close, slightly dour affairs, but this was a day in which both sides ensured that the crowd saw plenty of action – nine tries and plenty of near misses were the result.
Loughborough got the first two scores and rounded things off in the final minute, but in between the visitors ran in six tries and, with a little more quality in their opponents 22, should arguably have had more.
Loughborough are one of two League One clubs to have installed artificial pitches for this season and, after may weeks playing in wintry conditions, it was a joy to see a game in which the surface was not a factor and handling unaffected.
Both university teams had lost players to England Students call-ups. Fly-half Jacob Perry, prop Mike Flood and ‘back five’ forward Ton MacDonald were all absent for Hartpury, while England age group break-away Will Safe was one of those missing with injury.
On the positive side, this gave winger Harry Robinson and young loose-head Joe Wrafter – further products of Hartpury’s outstanding under-18 system – their first starts in league rugby. Steve Leonard made a welcome return from injury at centre.
The game quickly settled into a pattern, with Hartpury generally controlling possession and questioning the Loughborough defence. But, after an early Gareth Thompson penalty effort drifted narrowly wide, it was the home side that opened the scoring.
Blind-side James Hill started the move with a strong break out of defence and, after former England U18 wing Rotimi Segun had made further ground, was on hand to finish for a good try. Bar Bartlett converted.
Thompson did land a penalty for the visitors minutes later after more prolonged pressure, but another big run out of defence, this time from Number 8 Matt Rogerson and only stopped by an excellent Thompson tackle, saw Loughborough deep in Hartpury territory.
They were patient in their phase play, aided by a couple of uncharacteristic missed tackles, and got their reward when prop George Davis was driven over to extend the lead and end the first quarter.
Hartpury needed a response and they got one, when outstanding flanker Jake Polledri crashed through the Loughborough defence for their first try seven minutes later. The dynamic Polledri (pictured) has had an excellent season in Hartpury colours and he was at his best in this game.
If his first finish was all about power, his second was more of a trot in, as the visitors launched a series of powerful drives into the heart of the Loughborough defence before quickly moving the ball left, where Polledri was in acres of space.
For all their possession there were frustrations at the breakdown for Hartpury. More than once they got turned over as they failed to look after the ball and the tendency for certain players to concede soft penalties continued to be an issue.
Such an occasion gave Bartlett the opportunity to kick a 36th minute penalty and tie things up going in to the break, 15-15.
Hartpury were forced to re-shuffle the pack as the withdrawal of Joe Dancer saw George Evans come into the back row with skipper Rhys Oakley moving forward to lock. Replacement props Des Merrey and Wayne Thompson were also brought on, as Hartpury began to gain the edge at scrum time.
Within two minutes of the break Hartpury were back in front. Once again they battered the home defence before moving the ball wide right, giving debutant Robinson the chance to show his finishing skills with a strong effort in the corner. Thompson was unlucky as his touch-line conversion struck the post.
Hartpury were now in full control and Polledri completed his hat-trick with another powerful finish through the heart of the defence. He could have had a fourth later on, as he burst to the line from 30 metres out, only to be denied by an excellent last gasp cover tackle from Segun.
James Stephenson, an aspiring hooker but on this occasion having a fine match on the open-side, finished a powerful drive to score try number five before replacement centre George Boulton picked an excellent line off Harry Cochrane’s popped pass and was never going to be stopped from 10 metres out.
Ed Taylor’s late consolation try aside, this was a dominant second half from Hartpury who will go into next week’s home game with Rosslyn Park in good spirits. The only shadow on the result appeared to be yet another injury to Steve Leonard, who left the ground on crutches after limping off on the hour.
Richmond maintained their 10-point buffer courtesy of the very narrowest of bonus-point wins at Wharfedale, with the hosts apparently spurning a kickable penalty in the closing seconds. In the other game affecting the top of the table, Plymouth came a cropper on their visit to an increasingly potent Ampthill, 52-13 the emphatic final score.
At the other end, Ionians were distinctly second best to Blackheath which means that Henley Hawks, despite a home defeat to Coventry, still retain a (purely) mathematical chance of salvation. Cinderford spiced things up with a 31-24 victory over Esher to move within 10 points of the Hull side, although they might live to regret not collecting the four-try bonus point for their efforts. Wharfedale remain deep in trouble while Blaydon, heavily beaten by next week’s opponents Rosslyn Park, will be targeting their next two matches (vs Cinderford, at home, and at at Henley) as their route to conformed safety.
For Hartpury, the requirement remains largely the same – four bonus wins from four matches. No pressure then.
Loughborough: Pons, Odogwu, Hutchison, Eastwell (Con 80), Segun, Bartlett (Con 5), De Cothi, Lasis, Miller, Davis (Try 19), Peters, Taylor (Try 80), Hill (Try 4), Boyce, Rogerson.
Bench: Fields, Cave, MacPherson, Dobinson, Wardle
Hartpury: Forrester, Robinson (Try 42), Leonard, Eves, Miklacius, G Thompson (Cons 27, 51 74; Pen 13), Cochrane; Wrafter, Taylor, Clarey, Chan, Dancer, Polledri (Tries 27, 32, 50), Stephenson (Try 68), Oakley
Bench: Tanner, Merrey, W Thompson, Evans, Boulton (Try 73)
Referee: J Makepiece