Coventry 34 – Hartpury University 33

This was extraordinary game, in which Hartpury fell badly behind, somehow regained the lead with a scintillating second half scoring blast, fell behind again, re-took the lead with 90 seconds to play and eventually lost, to the last kick of the game, thanks to a penalty of dubious distinction.

Toby Venner tormented the Coventry defence throughout the second half (LNC Images)

A cold foggy afternoon in the Midlands was the backdrop, but there was plenty to keep a good crowd warm on a day when the pace barely flagged.

Hartpury’s problems began even before the kick off, when Charlie Foley – an important player all season – tweaked his groin in the warm-up and was forced to withdraw.  Tommy Mathews, who was to have a good game, stepped up from the bench to fly half, James Williams moving into Foley’s 12 slot.

Seasoned centre Luke Eves, who had announced his immediate retirement from playing earlier in the week, was summarily reintroduced to the world of (semi) pro rugby, with an unexpected seat on the bench.

If that wasn’t disruptive enough, things went from bad to worse for the Red & Blacks in the early stages of the match.  Loose-head, Conor Maguire, was the first to go down in a heap within the opening minutes – having to be replaced by Lewis Holsey – and he had been followed by skipper and hooker, Will Crane, before 20 minutes were up.

Coventry, meanwhile, were playing with confidence.  They may have been inconsistent overall this season, but with five wins out of six at home before this game, their problems are not at the Butts Arena.  They were also bolstered by a number of changes, since their last game, as injury problems start to clear up.

Almost inevitably, they were quickly ahead despite some early encouraging defensive sets from the visitors. 

Ryan Burrows was the first to cross from a driven lineout after Hartpury had been penalised deep in their own half and the same player went close from the base of a scrum in the aftermath of the Crane injury, Jonathan Kpoku following up well to double the early lead to 14-0.

Coventry themselves quickly lost Kpoku to a leg injury – we hope it’s not too serious – and then lost momentum as Hartpury finally managed to keep some ball and play through a few phases.

With half-backs Toby Venner and Mathews prompting intelligently, half-gaps began to appear.  Penalties were also starting to come the way of the men in red, but the occasional lineout misfire undermined the ability to fully profit.

Coventry went close through a break-out led by Sam Aspland-Robinson, before Hartpury registered their first points of the afternoon.

Ciaran Knight and Dale Lemon both made heavy carries in midfield before the Smith brothers, first Robbie then Sam, made good ground down the right.  With the forwards supporting well at the subsequent breakdown, it was tight-head Knight who made the final thrust.

With half time five minutes away, 14-7 would have been an acceptable end to a chaotic half of rugby for the visitors.

Instead, they surrendered a simple three points to the boot of Tony Fenner right from the re-start, Oli Robinson unlucky to have been pinged when clearly not held in the tackle.  Worse was to come on the stroke of half-time.

Both sides surrendered possession, loosely, on two or three occasions before impressive Coventry hooker, Jordan Poole, finally made the telling break, his pass leaving replacement scrum-half Josh Barton with a simple finish under the posts.  Now it was 24-7, following the kick, and Hartpury had undone a lot of their earlier recovery.

Whatever was said and done at half-time – or maybe it was just the opportunity to regroup for the visitors – was transformative.

Toby Venner made the first of a series of thrilling interventions shortly after the re-start – making 40 metres through the home defence – and, although that came to nothing, the pattern had been set.

It was Venner again who won the penalty turnover as Coventry tried to play clear.  Ethan Hunt, Crane’s early replacement, found his man from the lineout and was there again to emerge with the ball as the drive did its job.  24-14 after the kick.

Within three minutes, the Red & Blacks were in again.  Coventry were loose in possession around their own 10 metre line and Jimmy Williams was quick to spot the opportunity.  His pass to Robbie Smith was well-timed and nobody was catching him from 25 metres out.

The conversion was wide, but at 24-19 Hartpury were back in business and an astonishing recovery looked to have been completed just two minutes later. 

Hartpury attacked from the restart, a Tommy Mathews chip over the Coventry defence around half-way falling beautifully for Smith to get his hands on the ball again.  Venner was in support and, after bouncing out of one tackle, had the sheer gas to go under the posts untouched to make it 24-26 and the first bonus point of the day.  Breath-taking stuff.

Coventry were looking shell-shocked but, to their credit, they did rouse themselves with a series of strong carries, replacement lock Nile Dacres showing up well.

A beautifully judged kick from Tom Curtis had the Hartpury defence scrambling close to their own line and, from the resulting lineout, the returning Josh Bainbridge broke out of the drive to score Coventry’s fourth try. 31-26.

Into the final 10 minutes and both sides knew that they needed another score.  Fenner, for once, missed a kick that could have made it an eight-point gap, while Hartpury continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession, playing with width and ambition.

A stunning 50-22 kick from Mathews gave them field position, although Dacres stole the lineout to keep his side in control.

Eventually it came down to a dramatic final two minutes.  A horribly thrown lineout gave Hartpury the scrum on half-way.  Mitch Eadie, an influential second-half figure, broke from the base and his inside ball was the prompt for more Venner magic, as the scrum-half wove inside and then out, at express pace, to score in the corner.

Better was to come for Hartpury, as Williams landed his most challenging kick of day to make it 31-33.

From the re-start Hartpury looked to be in control of the ball, before Mr James, with blue shirts strewn off their feet all across the breakdown, somehow decided that the home team deserved a penalty, 35 metres out.

In days gone by, Cliffie Hodgson would have stroked such a kick tantalisingly wide of the uprights, but Tony Fenner had the minerals to kick it straight and true for an, ultimately, fortunate win.

Two points was some consolation for Hartpury, but the second half performance was the real result and should set the team up nicely for the challenge of London Scottish, at the Alpas, next Friday evening.

We will hope that the near-term injury news is good, but at least the squad has some strength in depth, these days, to be able to cover most key positions.

Congratulations to Coventry on the win and for a fine crowd of over 2100.


  1. A great report of what sounds an exciting match. You have given an objective report that highlights some great rugby and sets a high standard for others to follow.

  2. Not sure a team who was 17 points up at one point deserve to be deemed lucky to win, or that a non-biased eye (such as the ref’s for example) would have considered the last penalty to be dubious. However, it was certainly an exciting game and one I was extremely relieved to see us win.

    • Hi Rob…

      We report as we see it. Happy to be disagreed with!

      • I have to confess Andrew, I wasn’t close enough to the action to judge on the final penalty, however I did say just seconds before that teams are often penalised for holding on or sealing off when running down the clock. I think referees are looking for it. If you were close enough to make an informed decision then fair enough. I can imagine the frustration from the Hartpury side having been so close to the victory – our injury woes won’t have diminished after the game…

  3. I watched the video a few times! It happens. I’m sure we’ve had the rub of the green a few times in the past. As you say, a really good game and both teams left with positives (and plenty of bruises)…

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