Defeat in this match was tough to take for Hartpury, who led for virtually the whole of the 80 minutes before being overhauled by a late Louis Grimoldby penalty.
However, the Red & Blacks only had themselves to blame, after building leads of 21-5 in the first half and 38-19 shortly after the interval. Will Crane’s 42nd minute score at the back of a lineout drive had seemed to put the visitors into clear blue sky, but they allowed themselves to be reeled in by Ampthill during the second half.
Hartpury had stuck largely with the pack that helped them to a win over Nottingham in the previous round, with the most notable change in the back division being the move of James Williams into fly-half, from 12.
And it all started well for them, as they had the bonus point in the bag before half-time.
The opening score came in the first minute and it was some clever thinking from centre Robbie Smith that led to it.
Ampthill had made a mess of receiving the kick-off, leading to an attacking line-out close to their 22. Hartpury launched a couple of strong thrusts and, at the break down, Ampthill centre Jeremy To’a stayed down with an injury.
As the ball was recycled, his absence left a gap in the midfield defence and Smith was smartly through it, before a well-timed pass gave Luke Eves his first try of the season.
Ampthill hit back in the 7th minute when an overthrown Hartpury lineout gave them possession on halfway. There were good hands in some narrow spaces, before the ball was grubbered behind the Hartpury defence and winger Will Foster won the chase.
From the restart, Ampthill were somewhat laboured in organising their exit as Hartpury piled into the breakdown. The clearance kick was blocked by Ehize Ehizode and the big lock was able to regather the ball after it ballooned into the air, before galloping in for the game’s third try inside the opening 10 minutes.
If this was a good start, it was soon to get even better. Hartpury were playing with a nice pace and zip, while the forwards were generally getting the better of things in both the loose and the set piece. With a penalty advantage called, Will Flinn fired a somewhat speculative pass out towards his midfield. The ball landed nicely for lock Dale Lemon and his pass found Morgan Monks, who ran in unchallenged from 22 metres.
With James Williams so far perfect from the kicking tee, Hartpury could hardly believe the position they found themselves in, with a 21-5 lead on the scoreboard.
Ampthill were unlikely to have been expecting the first quarter to develop in quite this way, but three minutes later they were given a helping hand by referee Michael Hudson, who’s offside decision was puzzling to more than just the visiting cohort. No matter, Louis Grimoldby has a boot made for just such an occasion and, when he gave his forwards a lineout six metres from the try-line, they responded with an unstoppable drive.
James Williams then knocked over a routine kick after Hartpury’s pack had forced another penalty, in front of the posts, at the end of the first quarter.
Ampthill Full Back Tom Hudson – currently on loan from Gloucester – played a few games for Hartpury in the 2017-18 season but there was no sign of any old pals act moments later.
Wil Partington had launched a promising attack with a kick return from deep in his own 22, but the turnover came when his offload to debutant Sam Smith was grounded. Hudson chipped ahead from around 40 metres out and had the pace and strength to regather the high ball before scoring under the posts.
Hartpury went straight back onto the attack, but a strong break from Monks came to a frustrating end when his pass to Sam Smith was misplaced. But with the visitors again pressing, Ampthill suffered a double blow around the half hour when both lock forwards, including former Gloucester man Charlie Beckett – another to have worn Hartpury colours – were sin-binned in separate incidents.
Hartpury’s best try of the game came with the advantage.
A nice ball off the top of the line out from Will Safe allowed the Red and Blacks to launch another high energy attack. Robbie Smith carried into contact and, after it was quickly recycled, Wil Partington’s grubber was inch perfect for winger Jack Johnson.
Hartpury then withstood a late Ampthill flurry before taking a 31-19 lead into the break.
The second period started with more intense Hartpury pressure which led to the Crane try. But that it was to be it – in terms of try-scoring – from the visitors, whose second half could not match their first.
Hartpury old boy Syd Blackmore was driven over in the 47th minute before James Williams struck the post with a penalty four minutes later – his only failure of the day, in what was another good display.
A Hartpury attack led to the next Ampthill try. Given a penalty close to half-way, scrum-half Flinn took a quick tap. After making good ground he looked to chip ahead but the ball was half charged down and Ampthill were able to hack clear. With Hartpury committed upfield, it became a footrace between home winger Will Brown and Hartpury prop Lewis Holsey. There was only one winner in that and, despite a good recovery by replacement Ben Foley, Brown finished well.
Another Williams penalty made the score 41-33 early in the final quarter, but the momentum had swung toward the home team.
There was a bizarre incident with 10 minutes to play when an already-substituted Hartpury player was yellow-carded – for preventing a quick throw – after a good clearing kick from Williams had found touch inside the Ampthill half.
The line out was upgraded into a penalty, which Grimoldby launched into the Hartpury half. The Ampthill forwards battered their way from the 22 to the try line and it was replacement, Billy Johnson, who applied the final touch. Grimoldby’s kick made it a one-point game.
In the end it was Williams who gave up the final penalty – adjudged to have deliberately knocked on – which was a harsh end to what had been an excellent individual performance, before referee Hudson surprised everybody by ending the game a minute or so early.
A crazy game – no doubt thrilling for both the victors and the neutrals. Hartpury take two points from the match, but will feel that it should have been five. Next week, Coventry Rugby are the visitors to the Alpas Arena.
Ampthill: Hudson (Try 22), Brown (Try 57), Roberts, To’a, Foster (Try 7), Grimoldby (Cons 8, 19, 23, 48, 58, 74), Law; Jack, Blackmore (Tries 18, 47), Wainwright, Beckett, Jones, Humfrey, Stonham, Bercis. Bench: Ward, Crean, Lutui, Johnson (Try 73), Arhur, Bryan, Bennett, Hallett.
Hartpury: Partington, Johnson (Try 33), R Smith, Eves (Try 1), S Smith, Williams (Cons 2, 10, 14, 34, 43. Pens 2o, 64), Flinn; Holsey, Crane (Try 42), Knight, Lemon, Ehizode (Try 9), Safe, Clementson, Monks (Try 13). Bench: Selway, Porter, Challenger, Clark, Wilson, Waters, Bragman, Foley.
Referee: Michael Hudson