All images courtesy of Dave Horn/PRIME Media Images. @davehorn247 (Twitter)
With this performance, Hartpury terminated a losing streak at Goldington Road, home of the Bedford Blues, stretching back to November 2017 – a 33-7 defeat – and continuing unabated for a further five visits, including a cup game, until yesterday.
Indeed, a single narrow win at home in the spring of 2019 had been the Red & Blacks’ only success against this opponent in their Championship history and some of the reversals, such as the 19-42 home loss earlier this season, had been chastening.
Therefore, the joy was palpable at the final whistle yesterday, when a young group of players, some of whom have had to wait for opportunities this season, produced a performance of passion, power, energy and enterprise to claim a both a bonus point and some much-needed confidence going into a ‘tricky’ run of fixtures ahead.
That is not to say that the visit to Blues itself was not regarded as a significant challenge. Despite some inconsistency this season, the hosts were still alongside Hartpury in the table and had recently produced a good home performance to beat highly-placed Jersey Reds, one of the contenders in the top four of the Championship standings.
A rash of injuries and unavailability had stripped Hartpury of much of last week’s match-day 23, which meant that – despite a good week of training – there was possibly more hope than expectation going in to the match.
Faced with the circumstances – and knowing that Blues are a team that can cut most opponents up when not fully challenged – the coaching staff encouraged their group to go out and ‘play’ yesterday. It was a policy that was to reap rich dividends.
Head Coach, Mark Cornwell, was understandably delighted. “We gave the boys licence to go out and express themselves today and, wow, they delivered.”
“We knew were in a good place at half-time and we had the energy and the commitment to get the job done after the break.”
“We did not want to come to Bedford just to watch them play rugby and for us to defend for 80 minutes. When you play with the ball things tend to go your way and, although Bedford might have something to say about one or two decisions in the game, that final outcome was fully justified.”
Hartpury signalled their intent from the very kick-off, when the return was run from deep in their own 22. The Smith brothers, Sam and then Robbie, both played a part before releasing the jet-heeled Toby Venner – who put in yet another hugely exciting performance – to carve a long trail up the middle of the pitch.
An excellent chase and cover tackle from Rich Lane eventually ended his progress 15 metres from the Bedford line, but the die had been cast.
In fact, Hartpury were to create a number of chances in the first half and, if there was a concern at the break, it was that they only finished one of them.
That came in the 24th minute from a familiar source.
Clean ball off the top of a lineout on half-way, from Cam Jordan, was carried strongly across the gain line by blind-side Aled Ward. Jordan was involved again, before the ball was transferred to centre Jack Tovey – making a first full return after illness. His inside ball, in turn, found Robbie Smith who had the pace and footwork to finish uphill from 30 metres.
The ever-reliable James Williams improved the score. He was faultless again yesterday, kicking four conversions and two penalties for a personal tally of 14 points, which will only extend his lead at the top of the Championship points-scoring table.
Earlier, Blues had taken the lead with a Grimoldby penalty, although Hartpury transgressions – not always the case in this or previous seasons – were relatively rare and it was the home team who were the more regularly punished for indiscipline on the day.
There was a sense at the interval that Hartpury, with the use of the slope and – marginally – the gusty wind to come, had gone a long way to creating a positive outcome.
They continued to attack after the break, although there was a set-back in the 47th minute when Blues scored their only try of the game, against the run of play.
Again, Hartpury were pressing in a wide channel before an attempted grubber was blocked by a Blues shin and quickly transferred to Dean Adamson a full 60 metres out. Adamson is one of the Championship’s genuine speed-merchants and he needed no second invitation to outstrip the cover, Grimoldby converting well, from wide out, for a 10-7 lead.
If Hartpury were concerned, they didn’t show it and went on to dominate remainder of the match. Blues had occasional moments, but lacked their normal flair and accuracy with ball in hand.
Much of this of this was due to some aggressive and uncompromising Hartpury defence, when needed, which they interwove with some exceptional attacking play as further opportunities were created.
They were quickly back on terms after Venner, again, shredded the Blues midfield with a lightning break. Ward fed the impressive Dale Lemon from the breakdown and his strong carry drew the penalty in front of the posts. Williams did the rest.
Better was to come a few minutes later.
Hartpury continued to show enterprise before another penalty was kicked to a point just outside the Blues 22. A fingertip take from Josh Gray secured possession and the Red and Blacks had only one thought.
Tovey carried powerfully into the heart of the Bedford midfield before Sam Smith made good ground towards the left. His inside pass found Venner and, from 20 metres, there was only ever one outcome – a big step, a squeeze on the gas and a try under the posts.
Noses in front, Hartpury could sense an important victory. They doubled the lead early in the final quarter with a more prosaic, but none the less welcome, score.
It came after a frustrating passage for the home side, in which they repeatedly ran into a red wall before being turned over via a penalty at the scrum.
From the lineout, half-backs Venner and Williams were close to working some magic down the narrow side before Venner, involved again, launched himself infield.
The forwards took over for the last 15 metres and, after some strong drives, it was the excellent Jordan who plunged over from short range.
With minutes to go, it looked as though Hartpury had settled for four points, when Williams kicked his second penalty, from close to half-way, to make it an unassailable 17-point lead, but the men in red were not quite finished yet.
Blues gave up the ball after a scrum advantage was ignored and replacement winger, Mat McNab, made good ground on the right. His inside ball found Gray and then on to full-back George Simpson – another having a notable game. The final pass was to Tovey, who capped his best performance yet in Red & Black with a score behind the sticks for the final act, other than the Williams kick.
The celebrations were mighty and heartfelt and it would be remiss not to finish with a word about performances.
The new-look front row of Alex Seville and Ethan Hunt, both graduates of the Hartpury academy, plus ‘veteran’ Shaun Knight did everything asked of them at the set-piece and all made contributions around the park, while the second-row combination of Jordan and Lemon were both immense in all aspects of the game.
A young starting back row of Harry Short, Aled Ward and Josh Gray – some of whom have had to be very patient this season – all gave strong and dynamic performances.
Outside, all of the three-quarters ran well and intelligently while defensively they were virtually impenetrable against a usually potent Blues.
George Simpson was coolness personified at the back and made telling contributions with the ball. All of the used replacements acquitted themselves very well.
Special praise goes to the half-backs. Williams was his normal dependable self with the boot and was able to show flashes of the footwork and pace that we know to be part of his armoury. Toby Venner – picking up his second MOTM award in three games and his sixth try in six, was again the outstanding player on the field, always alert and torturing the Blues with both guile and pace.
Hartpury now face two very tough home games, with favourites for promotion, Ealing, and fourth-placed Jersey Reds both coming to the Alpas in the next fortnight. After that, we visit current leaders, Doncaster Knights, hoping to do better than the 5-point defeat that we suffered at home in November.
We hope you can join us!