Plymouth Albion 35 – Hartpury College 26

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Hartpury, seeking to consolidate the runners-up spot in National 1, started well but finished poorly as a string of second half errors kept the lid on their scoring ambitions.

Plymouth, on the other hand, put a difficult week temporarily behind them by doing the basics well and demonstrating the necessary killer instinct to finish off nearly all of the chances they created in this enjoyable end-of-season tussle.

Having dispensed with the services of popular Director of Rugby, Graham Dawe, following last week’s take-over of the club, there had been talk of Albion fans boycotting this match.  Instead, they turned up in their droves – 1843 was the official attendance – and cheered their team from start to finish.

The crowd may have been helped by the conditions which, despite a cool breeze, were dry and sunny.  A playing surface which had been under criticism earlier in the season was, on this occasion, firm and fast.

Hartpury came into the fixture with plenty of cause for optimism.  Aside from the unknown mental state of the opposition, the College were in decent form and able to name a strong side.

Powerful centre Steve Leonard was back after missing the last two matches with a leg injury, while young Gloucester three-quarter Elliot Creed was selected on the wing.  Dan Thomas made his first appearance since early March at open-side.

That confidence was reinforced by the shape of the opening exchanges, as Hartpury took the game to their hosts.  A period of early pressure was rewarded as Thomas scored from a driven line-out, Gareth Thompson’s conversion making it 0-7.

The visitors extended the lead before quarter of an hour had passed and the try came from a now-familiar source.

The live-wire Thomas broke free on half-way and looked to be going the distance after showing good pace.  He was only denied by an exceptional cover tackle by Albion’s outstanding Matt Shepherd, but the ball was quickly recycled.

Stretching the Albion defence from one touchline to the other, the handling was good and winger Jonas Mikalcius needed only the narrowest of gaps to squeeze in at the opposite corner.

So far, so good, as Hartpury, seemingly dominant in almost all departments – only the scrum appeared to be a reason for concern – looked to be in control.  But game changed quickly mid-way through the half as Albion finally found some rhythm.

First, they pinned the Hartpury defence deep in their 22 before Bristol-bound outside half Billy Searle was able to glide between the posts to leave Shepherd with a simple kick.

Just five minutes later they were in again as tight-head Chris Judge scored from close range after more pressure on the College line, Shepherd once more adding the extras.

Perhaps stung to find themselves behind after such a good start, Hartpury responded well and were back on the scoreboard twice before the interval.

Mikalcius became the originator of their third try when a powerful run inside his own half had the Albion defence back-pedalling.  Again the handling was crisp and the passes well-timed as Hartpury spread the ball wide, full-back Jamie Forrester providing the extra man (pictured) as the students produced an excellent team try.

Thompson could not convert from the touch-line but made no mistake on the stroke of half time as Hartpury’s forwards produced a penalty in front of the posts to go in to the changing rooms with a 14-20 advantage.

The second half, from a visiting perspective, was a disappointment.  Where the handling had been sharp and accurate before the break, it became increasingly ragged as the game wore on.  Errors became commonplace, particularly as Albion ramped up the scoreboard pressure and the visitors began to look for unlikely off-loads.

The seeds were sown minutes after the re-start when Hartpury, running from deep, lost possession needlessly in the tackle and were made to pay as, a couple of phases later, Shepherd crossed for the first of his two tries.

Two further Thompson penalties kept Hartpury noses in front, but all efforts to grab the bonus-point try were undermined by sloppy handling and a lack of composure at key moments.

Former Hartpury student Andy Chesters invoked the curse of the former player when his score finished off a period of Albion pressure and got the home side back in front with twelve minutes remaining.

Albion then made an entertaining game safe when Number 8 and skipper Herbie Stupple picked up from the base of a midfield scrum and was allowed to travel an awfully long way before unselfishly unloading to the supporting Shepherd, whose conversion gave him five from five for the match.

Hartpury retain second place, courtesy of results elsewhere, and are now confirmed of their highest ever league finish.  A bonus-point win over Hull Ionians, at home next Saturday, will mean second; however, with three teams separated by only one point, any slip up could see that becoming fourth.

Albion: Shepherd (Tries 43, 71; Cons 20, 26, 44, 68, 71), Cully, Bedford, Koteczky, Wedlake, Searle (Try 20), Setter; O Dawe, Penman, Judge (Try 26), Collier, Holmes, Dacres, Matavesi, Stupple.

Replacements: Pullinger, Freestone, Chesters (Try 68), Putt, J Dawe.

Hartpury: Forrester (Try 33), Creed, Leonard, Eves, Mikalcius (Try 13), Thompson (Con 6; Pens 39, 48, 55), Cochrane; Merrey, Tanner, Clarey, Chan, Dancer, Polledri, Thomas (Try 6), Oakley.

Replacements: Taylor, Barron, Spencer, Voss, Perry.

Referee:  James Clark

Attendance:  1843

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