Doncaster Knights extended their winning start to three matches with this hard-fought victory over a gutsy, but ultimately pointless, Hartpury.
Knights were good value for the win although, much like the previous week, Hartpury will be kicking themselves for not taking at least a bonus point after a spirited second half display.
Hartpury had made a number of changes, with Will Safe returning after a head-knock and with Wil Partington, Tom Stanton, Scott Russell and Nick Selway all getting their first starts. Arthur Clark, a 19-year old Hartpury College student, was set to make his RFC and Championship debut, from the bench.
It was pretty much a perfect night for rugby – dry and calm, with a firm fast surface.
The opening exchanges looked promising for the hosts, although a missed Josh Bragman penalty, awarded at the first breakdown, and a couple of marginally forward passes undermined their efforts.
Doncaster were not to be so wasteful. In their first attack of the match, Jack Spittle came off his wing to spear deep into the home 22 and, although the attack was held up, it was at the expense of a penalty and a yellow card for Bragman.
From the line-out, the Knights drove infield towards the posts, before Number 8 Guido Volpi applied the final touch.
With Hartpury looking uncomfortable at the early scrums, Doncaster were able to extend their lead a few minutes later. Again a winger came infield to cause the damage – Kyle Evans this time – before a further intervention from full-back Billy McBryde gave Spittle a run-in for his first Championship try for the Knights.
Wil Partington, at full-back for Hartpury, was having a very good game, looking steady under the high ball and inventive with the ball in hand. His break out of defence and kick ahead led to the first home try.
As Doncaster tried to counter from deep, a loose pass from Sam Olver was picked off by Robbie Smith, who sprinted from half-way for his first try of the season.
Hartpury were almost in again from the restart as Ben Foley and Harry Wilson combined to go 70 metres, but Wilson’s kick ahead just bounced away from the winger.
It was all-action now, and Knights were next to benefit, with a try of stunning simplicity. Hooker (and Hartpury old boy) Ben Hunter looped around an attacking lineout and his popped pass found Spittle – again in midfield – for an arcing run that took him outside the defence and back behind the sticks.
After an Olver penalty took it to 7-22, James Williams – another to have a good match in Red & Black – went close with a strong break that took him up to five metres out, before the Red & Blacks did narrow the gap shortly before the break. Again it came from a Partington kick, this time a grubber, and Ben Foley got a fortunate ricochet before beating brother, Charlie, to the ball.
The second 40 started with Knights again enjoying the better of things and they were rewarded by an Olver penalty after 49 minutes.
But that signalled the start of Hartpury’s best spell as they started to control territory and possession and it was no surprise when replacement hooker, Will Crane, drove over after an attacking lineout. At 21-25 the match was now very much in the balance and Hartpury had their tails up.
When Doncaster loose-head, ‘Bomber’ Hislop, was sent to the bin for a no arms tackle, Hartpury could clearly sniff an opportunity. The next few minutes were all Red & Black, but chances came and went as somehow the Knights survived.
The final momentum shift came with 10 minutes to play, when a needless penalty on the Knights 22 allowed them to relieve the pressure. A couple of plays later they were on the attack and a strong forward drive saw Calum Waters as the third player to see a card for coming in at the side on his own five metre line.
Moments later Ben Hunter scored from the driven lineout to secure both the win and the bonus point. With no specialist scrum half on the field, Hartpury were unable to build any further sustained pressure.
The night was not without positives for the Red & Blacks. Three more tries made it 11 in three matches for team that have often had trouble in finishing attacks. Apart from the players already mentioned, stand-in skipper Dale Lemon led very much from the front, while young Arthur Clark made quite an impact in his 25-minute debut, including pilfering a Doncaster lineout, the only one that they lost all night.
Robbie Smith showed more of the promise that we saw last season, while Gloucester loanee Tom Stanton also had a couple of good moments.
Next week Hartpury travel to early pace-setters, Ealing Trailfinders. Ealing – like the Knights – still have a 100% record and their win at Coventry was also the third in which they have topped 50 points.
Hartpury: Partington, Stanton, Smith, Williams, Foley, Bragman, Flinn (Waters, 62); Challenger (Adkins, 40), Selway (Crane, 47), Knight (Holenstein, 62), Lemon, Russell (Clark, 57), Ward , Safe (Gray 67), Wilson
Doncaster: McBryde, Evans (Packman, 40), Foley (Best, 76), Edwards, Spittle (Cade, 62, Spittle 72), Olver, Warr (Cullen, 72); Hislop (Cade, 72), Hunter (Holling, 71), Jones (Denman, 55), Challinor, Sexton, Kelly (Joyce 70), Graham, Volpi (Davies, 57)
Referee: Michael Hudson
Hartpury Tries: Smith 20, Foley 37, Crane 55. Cons: Bragman 21, 38, 56
Doncaster Tries: Volpi 9, Spittle 18, 25, Hunter 71. Cons: Olver 10, 26, 72. Pens: Olver 30, 49