Hartpury duly completed win number thirteen of their, so far, massively successful season, but this was no stroll against an energetic and committed Loughborough Students side.
In fact, it was the home team who had the better of the first half hour, before Hartpury settled to their task with five tries either side of the half time break to establish their control.
Loughborough briefly threatened the visitors’ equilibrium with two smash-and-grab scores mid-way through the second half, but Hartpury had the strength and experience to close the game out with a late flourish.
On a raw, grey afternoon in the East Midlands, Hartpury showed a number of changes from last week’s big home win over DMP. Triallist Ellis Abrahams was given a start on the wing while Callum Sheedy also made his debut in red and black at fly half, having been side-lined since the end of last season with injury.
Jonas Mikalcius returned to the side and Robbie Shaw replaced the injured Harry Randall at scrum half. Ben Vellacott was a welcome face on the Hartpury bench, making his first appearance of the season.
It may have been the changes, but Hartpury looked a little disjointed early on and a high error count was enough to ensure that there was no chance to build pressure.
Loughborough, in contrast, started well with talented outside half Josh Sharp pulling the strings and plenty of early possession to play with. Kicking to test the visiting back three, he kept Students on the front foot and quickly benefited from two early penalties, the second conceded when Hartpury were over-elaborate in playing out of their own 22.
Sheedy did get Hartpury on the board, from the tee, but Loughborough extended their advantage early in the second quarter, Sharp again doing the damage. A Students scrummage was badly disrupted – Hartpury might have had a whistle in their favour on another day – but the loose ball was shoveled away to the Loughborough play-maker.
From half-way, he had the vision and the pace to step past two would-be tacklers and finish under the posts.
Sheedy kicked again to keep the visitors in touch and finally, after the half-hour, they managed to establish an attacking position deep in home territory. From a line-out, Hartpury drove in-field, towards the posts.
Mat Gilbert looked destined to reach the line, but when he was dragged down inches short the ball was quickly recycled for prop Des Merrey to bundle over. Following the coversion, it was all square.
Hartpury were starting to make their presence felt, with props Merrey and Alec Clarey carrying well and flanker Jake Polledri playing in typical barn-storming style.
It was Polledri’s huge break out of defence the created the opportunity for Hartpury to snatch a half-time lead. Good phase play found its reward when skipper Rhys Oakley broke tackles near the home 22 and his pass was well-timed to allow centre Luke Eves to squeeze into the corner to make it 13-18 at the break.
Hartpury continued the momentum into the second half and three tries in 12 minutes gave them both the breathing space they wanted and their thirteenth try bonus point of the season.
Another driven line-out made good ground in the 47th minute, but looked to have run out of steam before Jake Polledri got his hands on the ball and literally battered his way over from seven metres out (pictured).
Shortly after, the forwards were close again, with replacement prop Alex ‘Bert’ Gibson showing up well, and an over-loaded Students defence could do nothing to stop Eves trotting in for his second.
Ben Vellacott, now on at half-back having earlier replaced Abrahams on the wing, then showed typical sniping instinct by taking a quick tap and go to score beside the posts.
At 13-35 Hartpury were looking comfortable, but two tries in three minutes from Loughborough briefly threatened to spoil the party. Sharp, again, had a big hand in the first, when his cross-field kick fell into the arms of scorer Jack Stapley, before Saracens and England age-group flyer, Rotimi Segun, finished a long-range break-out after tackles had been missed in the home 22.
There were to be no further wobbles, however. Vellacott, repeated his earlier quick thinking, this time feeding Robbie Shaw for the try, before replacement forward James Stephenson finished powerfully from another attacking lineout.
The major game elsewhere was at Billesley Common, where Birmingham Moseley (2nd) won an arm-wrestle, 22-12, over Blackheath (4th). Third-placed Plymouth Albion registered a comfortable home win over Macclesfield.
Elsewhere there were wins for Ampthill, Cambridge, Rosslyn Park, DMP and Old Albanian.
That all means that Hartpury now enjoy a 14-point lead at the top of National 1, but will be severely tested next weekend when former giants Moseley are the visitors.
Loughborough: Edwards, Stapley (Try 62), Segun (Try 65), Currie, Loizias, Sharp (Try 23, Cons 23, 65, Pens 3, 11), Simmons; Christie, Miller, Betts, Lasis, Vukasinovic, Gracey, Moolman, Kingham. Replacements: Lynch, Davis, Macpherson, Pointon, Owolofela.
Hartpury: Wilcox, Abrahams, Leonard, Eves (Tries 39, 53), Mikalcius, Sheedy (Cons 32, 57, 70, Pens 17, 26), Shaw (Try 70); Merrey (Try 32), Tanner, Clarey, Quinn, Dancer, Polledri (Try 47), Gilbert, Oakley. Replacements: Stephenson (Try 75), Flook, Gibson, Vellacott (Try 57), Perry.
Referee: Llyr Ap-Geraint Roberts