Hartpury’s run of good results came to shuddering halt at the Madejski Stadium on Sunday, as Premiership-bound London Irish were ruthless in picking up their 18th win from twenty league matches this season.
The outcome of the game was not, perhaps, unexpected, but the manner and magnitude of the defeat will be of some concern to the Hartpury coaching staff, who now have to pick their team up for their season-defining home fixture with London Scottish, next Saturday.
In truth, despite plenty of effort – and having got off to the best possible start – this was a poor Hartpury performance that was reminiscent of their mid-season form, which had brought a string of defeats, many of them heavy.
The issues had started well before kick-off, when a combination of factors had deprived the team of many of their more influential players.
Scrum half, Ben Vellacott, and promising young centre, Charlie Powell, were required elsewhere, while winger Tom Seabrook had swapped the Red & Black of Hartpury for the Cherry & White of his parent club, Gloucester, for their match against Bath.
Also missing was forward Alex Craig, who had collected a knock in Gloucester’s most recent Premier Shield match.
That situation was compounded early in the match when fly-half Sam Leeming, who has played an important role in the recent revival, had to be helped from the field with a leg injury.
Conditions were good for rugby on a bright, dry, but chilly Berkshire afternoon. Irish had responded well to their set-back at Yorkshire Carnegie, a month ago, by picking up convincing wins at home to Doncaster Knights and, most impressively, away at the Pirates in the interim.
The opening exchanges gave no hint of the Hartpury woes to come. An early penalty was kicked deep by Leeming and, from the resulting drive, hooker Luke Stratford bundled over to give his side the lead. Leeming’s touchline conversion was beautifully struck.
Having made an early statement, it was important that Hartpury make their opponents work hard to fashion any kind of response. Sadly, it was all too easy for the Exiles and, after the forwards had created a position close to the line, a quick ball to winger Ben Loader presented the youngster with the simplest of finishes.
From then on it was one-way traffic throughout the half, as Hartpury struggled to cope with the power and pace that Irish brought to the game.
There was a sad moment with 15 minutes played, when promising young Irish centre, Tom Stephenson, who has already suffered more than his fair share of injury misfortune, was carried from the field in obvious pain after sustaining what was subsequently revealed to be a broken leg.
However, it didn’t do much to upset the rhythm of the hosts, who continued to score at will.
TJ Ioane put Irish ahead at the back of a line-out drive immediately after Stephenson’s departure and, despite some decent scrambling defence from Hartpury, Number 8 Ofisa Treviranus extended the lead in the 23rd minute with a powerful burst from the base of a five metre scrum.
It was power again a few minutes later. Irish skipper and lock forward, Josh McNally was almost visibly licking his lips, when, twenty metres out, he was faced only by Mike Wilcox, now shuffled to replace Leeming at fly-half, and one of the smallest players on the pitch.
Wilcox did well to bring down McNally, but could not prevent him from stretching out to score.
Hartpury were looking increasingly ragged by this point and, with Irish using their huge weight advantage to good effect, it was another giant, blind-side Albert Tuisue, who took them past the 30 point mark.
If Hartpury had time to re-group at the break, there was no sign of it as the hosts opened the second half by putting full-back Alivereti Veitokani in at the corner – for the first of two second-half tries –from an incisive move off first phase.
The visitors had a brief moment of joy when their best performer – Number 8 Sam Graham (pictured) – finished a series of forward drives, but the respite was short as Irish were quickly back into their stride with Veitokani’s second.
Replacement back, Matt Williams, also collected a brace – the second try coming when Irish had only 13 players on the pitch after back-to-back yellow cards for prop Lovejoy Chawatame and McNally.
It was to be a telling 10-minute period for Hartpury who, despite a two man advantage in the forwards, could not get themselves any closer to a potential four-try bonus point.
When the final whistle came, it was something of a relief and Hartpury now have six days to prepare for arguably the most important match in their relatively short history.
Irish have an even quicker turn-around. Their next fixture, in which they can confirm promotion, is against Hartpury’s fellow relegation candidates, Richmond, on Good Friday.
If that game goes to form, Hartpury will know that a bonus point win in their game next weekend will ensure Championship rugby for another season, although any other combination of results will ensure that the tension is maintained until the final game of the season.
London Irish: Veitokani (Tries 42, 50), Loader (Try 7), Stephenson, Mulchrone, McLean, Keatley (Cons 7, 17, 24, 28, 50), Meehan: Reid, Porecki, Hoskins, Van der Merwe, McNally (Try 28), Tuisue (Try 33), Ioane (Try 17), Treviranus (Try 23). Bench: Fainga’a, Chawatama, Maddison, Schatz, Steele, Atkins (Con 77), Williams (Tries 65, 76).
Hartpury: Wilcox, Foley, Reeves, Eves, Henry, Leeming (Con 6), Cochrane; Murphy, Stratford (Try 5), Armstrong, Batley, Linsell, Langley, Qera, Graham (Try 48). Bench: Tanner, Merrey, Flook, Grieve, Pashley, Chapman, Forrester.