After an uncharacteristically tame display in defeat at Rosslyn Park, it was important for Hartpury to make some sort of statement at the home of the team which had replaced them as league-leaders.
The subsequent performance spoke volumes about the character of the side and underlined the ambition to perform well at this level which has driven them on this season.
Richmond have been in outstanding form in recent weeks and were looking to build on eight successive wins, having racked up 132 points in the previous three fixtures alone. However they were never allowed to cut loose as the students brought a hugely competitive edge to every aspect of the game.
For the third week running, the game kicked off in grey and windy conditions, although the rain stayed away and the surface was admirably firm given the recent weather.
The visitors were able to welcome back talismanic loose-head Des Merrey, making his first start since sustaining a serious knee injury back in February and playing the full 80 minutes as if he had never been away.
Experienced lock Steve Pape was also back as a solid presence in the pack, as was back-row forward Will Safe following concussion, while George Boulton returned in the centre after missing last week. Adam Hastings started at full-back.
With the likes of George Evans, Tom MacDonald and former USA scrum half Robbie Shaw on the bench, squad depth was on display.
In stark contrast to last week, it was evident from the start that Hartpury meant business. Jake Polledri was at the heart of a drive up-field that drew a first-minute penalty, comfortably slotted by Lloyd Evans despite the swirling wind.
A second shot was blown wide minutes later, but it was a temporary reprieve for the hosts. Hartpury battered at the Richmond midfield defence through a series of phases as Hastings, Pape, Leonard and Boulton all made incursions.
Eventually there was a chance to move wide as skipper Rhys Oakley shipped the ball to big winger Jonas Mikalcius. His pace took him outside a couple of lingering Richmond forwards before, faced with the cover defence, his well-timed inside ball found scrum-half Ben Vellacott in support. The Scotland Under-20 man had the pace to finish untouched.
A good start became a great one early in the second quarter. Forwards Pape and Brockett combined to tackle Richmond’s Lynn inside their own 22, before Safe swooped in to jackal the ball. Rather than playing safe, Hartpury attacked from deep and just a couple of phases later the ball was back in the hands of Mikalcius, on half-way.
This time he needed no support as his pace took him clear for a try (pictured), improved with a good conversion from Evans.
Richmond needed a response and they got one, as Allcock drove over after a series of assaults on the Hartpury line. Despite the scoring, the defending from both sides was ferocious as the intensity of the game barely wavered.
Hartpury struck back almost from the re-start, with a slightly unusual score. Their line-out, normally so reliable, was picked off by Richmond’s Will Warden near his own 22. But his tap went loose and Hartpury’s Joe Dancer was quick to pounce on the loose ball, his off-load then giving Oakley the chance to bundle over from 5 metres.
Richmond had the final word of an enthralling half when Rory Damant’s clever inside break created clear space for Ronnie McLean-Dents to finish. Kirby’s second successful conversion made it 14-20 at the interval.
The second half was tighter, but no less compelling. Hartpury started brightly and looked to have made a breakthrough when Vellacott scorched into the home 22, only to be brought down by Gadsby’s cover tackle.
Again, however, the respite was brief. Hartpury continued to launch themselves into the Richmond midfield until Steve Leonard got a foot in the door with typically forthright effort. He managed to get an off-load away and Vellacott was there again, on his shoulder, to sprint the final 20 metres under the posts for the bonus point.
As expected, Richmond fought back and launched a period of sustained pressure. They had their reward when a scrum close to the Hartpury line brought a penalty try, the third that the College have conceded in two games and, with more than a quarter to play, might have fancied their chances of more.
But the Red and Black defence was back to its outstanding best and despite a couple of close shaves Richmond could not break through. Hartpury eventually lifted the siege with the help of a breakdown turnover and a penalty from a powerful scrum.
They ended the game with period of pressure of their own and might have even denied Richmond a losing bonus, but Evans’ late kick drifted wide.
Hartpury go into the Christmas break via home fixture with mid-table Plymouth Albion, knowing that a win could see them starting 2016 back in top spot.
In other games, Blackheath stayed in close contact with a come-from-behind win at Coventry, although Esher slipped up, losing at home to a rapidly-improving Mowden Park.
At the foot of the table, Wharfedale got an uplifting away win at Ionians, whilst Cinderford were agonisingly close to beating Rosslyn Park, losing to a late, late score.
Loughborough left themselves with far too much to do at Plymouth, while the games at Blaydon and Fylde were victims of the weather.
We would like to thank Richmond for their warm welcome and look forward to what may be an important return fixture in April.
Richmond: Kirby (Cons 32, 39, 58), Broughton, Mitchell, McLean-Dents (Try 39), Gadsby, Damant, Stuart; Adiniran-Olule, Phipps, Lyon, Warden, Lenygon, Lonergan, Allcock (Try 32), Sargeant
Bench: Grimstone, Walford, Lee, Gibbs, Lynn (Plus Penalty Try, 57)
Hartpury: Hastings, Neal, Leonard, Boulton, Mikalcius (Try 26), L Evans (Pen 1, Cons 26, 50), Vellacott (Tries 15, 50); Merrey, Tanner, Brockett, Pape, Dancer, Polledri, Safe, Oakley (Try 35)
Bench: Taylor, Clarey, MacDonald, G Evans, Shaw
Referee: G Holsgrove