Ealing Trailfinders 22 – Hartpury RFC 14

Hartpury were deprived of even a bonus point, as a late Peter Lydon penalty, struck from marginally inside his own half, broke Gloucestershire hearts.

To leave empty-handed was far less than Hartpury deserved, after a wholehearted performance at the home of the Championship’s second-placed team.

Hartpury had led the game for half an hour, either side of half-time, and had visions of a famous victory against a club that they have never beaten.

But Ealing had the depth in their squad to turn up the power in the final 25 minutes, to first reel in a 14-0 Hartpury advantage, and then stretch their lead agonisingly beyond the seven-point margin.

Hartpury came into the game on the back of a good win against Richmond and with a selection boosted by the availability of returning players and support from the club’s Premiership partners.

The first half was largely attritional, as both sides sought to bring their big ball carriers into the game, and Hartpury gave as good as they got.

All of the forwards got opportunities to run at the Ealing defence, with locks Simon Linsell (pictured, offloading) and Alex Craig both prominent, alongside Number 8, Sam Graham.

With Ealing adopting a similar approach, the Hartpury defence was equally forthright, with top quality work coming from flankers Lewis Ludlow and Akapusi Qera.

The first quarter came and went with very few clear-cut opportunities for either side, Hartpury playing with a little more width and soaking up occasional periods of Ealing pressure.

The first score came in the 24th minute, after Tiff Eden – on his debut as a loanee from Bristol – sent a penalty deep into the Ealing 22.

A 5-metre scrum, given when Ealing tapped the ball dead from the lineout, was rock solid, allowing scrum half Ben Vellacott, making a welcome return from Gloucester Rugby, to spot the opportunity.  His sniping run took him through the home defence, before Eden added the extras to make it 7-0.

It stayed that way until the half-time whistle, the pattern of the game remaining largely the same and with the visitors weathering the loss of loose-head, Des Merrey, to a yellow card during a spell of intense Ealing pressure.

The hosts put down a series of scrums in the shadow of the Hartpury posts, but the defence again passed the test.

The Red & Blacks were quickly back in business after the break, as the second period began at a lively pace.

A length of the field attack, featuring some excellent handling as forwards and backs combined, finished in a penalty under the posts.  Vellacott was quick to choose the tap and, when Ealing infringed again, repeated the dose.

With the forwards driving close, the quicksilver scrum half was hot on their heels to throw a dummy before diving across for his second of the match. Again, Eden converted.

The tide turned thereafter, with the visitors increasingly falling foul of referee, Sara Cox, as Ealing turned up the heat.

Given a consistent attacking platform, via a stream of penalties, Ealing now had many opportunities to drive hard at the Hartpury line.

Sam Dickinson got them on the board with 54 minutes played, although the conversion was missed from wide out, meaning that Hartpury still held a healthy lead.

However, that was reduced a few minutes later, by a penalty try after Hartpury were adjudged to have pulled down another Ealing maul, to leave them holding a slender 2-point advantage.  There was an additional blow for the visitors, as Ludlow became the second man in red to be sent to the bin.

Ealing’s Number 8, Rayn Smid, completed the comeback eleven minutes from time, driving from the back of an attacking scrum after another maul had been held up over the line.  The conversion was good, to make it 19-14.

Hartpury were still posing a threat with occasional break-outs, but couldn’t find the final touch that would have put them back in front.

Lydon’s late kick completed the scoring, from yet another penalty given by Cox.

Fellow relegation candidates, Richmond, did pick up a single bonus point at Coventry, but with six games remaining, half of them at home, Hartpury will be hopeful that they will still have enough in the tank to make themselves safe.

One concern will be that injuries from Bristol’s bruising encounter with Gloucester on Friday night, might deprive them of players like Vellacott and Eden going into next Friday’s home fixture with Nottingham.

Ealing: Lydon (Con 61, Pen 80), Stegmann, Johnston, Sloan, Packman, May, Burns; Els, Walker, Millar-Mills, Onojaife, Casson, Dickinson (Try 54), Durutalo, Smid (Try 69).  Bench: Cornish, Beesley, Tampin, Davies, Edgson, Foley, Jones.  (Penalty Try, 60)

Hartpury: Wilcox, Foley, Seabrook, Tovey, Henry, Eden (Cons 25, 51), Vellacott (Tries 24, 50); Merrey, Tanner, Harden, Craig, Linsell, Qera, Ludlow, Graham. Bench: Stratford, Murphy, Morris, Scott, Dodd, Cochrane, Eves.

Attendance: 707

Referee:  Sara Cox

Star Man: Ben Vellacott

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