Image: LNC Images
Hartpury finally got their season underway at Doncaster on Saturday, in the first of three Championship Cup fixtures which precede the start of league action in mid-October.
By the end – despite the score-line and some obvious areas of concern – the coaching staff will have seen enough from their newly-assembled squad to provide some optimism for the season ahead.
Hartpury’s rugby management have made no secret of the fact that the league is their main priority in the 2019-20 campaign and, with just one previous run-out against the Ospreys three weeks ago, there was always going to be some element of ‘pre-season’ about these early cup matches.
The match-day 23 contained a horde of players on debut, as well as a number with limited first-team experience.
Those players had perfect conditions. The surface was dry, firm and well-grassed, while there was a breeze down the length of the pitch to keep the temperature down on a sunny day.
The game could hardly have started worse for the visitors. Seb-Nagle Taylor produced a sprightly carry out of his own 22 from the kick-off return but, when the ball was recycled, Knights’ scrum half Tom James – who had a good game overall – was there to charge down Nathan Chamberlain’s clearing kick.
The ball bounced kindly for the home team and centre Pete Lucock, an arrival from troubled Yorkshire Carnegie, had a simple finish next to the posts.
Sam Olver made no mistake with the conversion and followed that up with a penalty, seven minutes later, to have the Knights into a position of strength.
Hartpury’s early troubles were not just on the scoreboard. A stream of early line-outs went awry, while the Red & Blacks also creaked ominously in the game’s first scrum.
Indeed, the line-out was to be an issue throughout the first half, in particular, which inevitably undermined Hartpury’s efforts to build pressure, although the scrummage did recover.
Commendably, after the slow start, the visitors began to work their way back into the match.
Chamberlain was able to land a penalty to open their account, but equally encouraging was the willingness to play with a pace and width that wasn’t always evident last season.
So much so, that when the Knights second try came in the 18th minute, it was against the run of play.
A Hartpury attack broke down close to the home try-line and Knights were able to launch a high-speed counter from deep. They did knock the ball on, close to half way, but a turn-over following the scrum gave them a second chance.
The ball was worked quickly across the pitch to winger Tyson Lewis, and he needed no second invitation to get outside the Hartpury back-line to score. Olver’s excellent conversion took the tally out to 17-3.
Arguably, the try of the match came next and it went to Hartpury.
Lively scrum half, Harry Cochrane, moved the ball left from a position in the middle of the park. Some quick hands, including a one-handed pass behind his back from Jake Henry, found Akapusi Qera on the touchline.
The Fijian, perhaps appreciating a bit of ‘home style’ rugby, made good ground up the flank before feeding back inside to the supporting Dan Koster. The former Pirate had plenty to do, but possessed the pace and the power to finish from distance.
Hartpury then had the better of the next 30 minutes – into the second half – and a 37th minute driven try for Dan Murphy, after Henry had earlier been held up on the line, was their reward.
It was not all one-way traffic, Knights did have moments of pressure, but the Hartpury defensive effort was good and included shutting down the hosts lineout drive from just a few metres out.
Indeed, when Doncaster won an attacking penalty close to half time, it was telling that Olver opted to kick the three points, rather than look for the seven.
The second half started in much the same way, with Hartpury pressing. Young centre Joe Margetts, recently signed from Hartpury’s successful student team, made a strong break deep into Knights territory, but Hartpury lacked a final finish.
Doncaster had no such problems and were to prove themselves clinical when chances came their way during an evenly contested second period.
Their first second-half incursion into Hartpury territory brought a score for Tom James, after Hartpury had been slack around the fringe of a breakdown, and after that tries came regularly.
Lock Matt Smith, earlier yellow-carded, crashed over after some good off-loading before, with 10 minutes to go, winger Curtis Wilson was quick to swoop on a Hartpury handling error – again when the visitors were attacking – and had the pace to finish from inside his own half.
Replacement forward Morgan Eames finished a late lineout drive to give the scoreboard a somewhat misleading look, although Hartpury restored some sense of balance when lock, Tom Jubb, showed outstanding pace and stamina to score a long-range individual try in broken play as the clock ran down.
There were some good performances across the squad, although special mention goes to the back row, where Nagle-Taylor and Max Clementson worked tirelessly and Will Safe made a good impact as a half-time replacement for the industrious ‘Q’.
Hartpury will improve from here and now face two home Cup ties, versus Jersey and the Falcons, before we see Doncaster again, as our first league visitors, on Saturday, October 12th.
Knights: McColl, Wilson (Try 70), Hayes, Lucock (Try 1), Lewis (Try 17), Olver (Cons 2, 18, 64. Pens 8, 40), James (Try 51); Hislop, Hunter, Foster, Challinor, Smith (Try 64), Stedman, Jones, Pitman. Bench: Edgson, Thomas, Quigley, Eames (Try 77), Hills, Pocklington, Foley (Con 77), Evans.
Hartpury: Wilcox, Henry, Koster (Try 22), Margetts, Goatley, Chamberlain (Con 37, Pen 12), Cochrane; Murphy (Try 37), Crane, Challenger, Everard, Jubb (Try 79), Qera, Clementson, Nagle-Taylor. Bench: Tanner, Owen, Flook, Southon, Safe, Carter, Bragman (Con 79), Simpson.
Referee: Mr N Chivers