Hartpury went into this game needing maximum points to keep their faint title hopes alive and that was exactly what they got from an entertaining tussle with the relegation-threatened Yorkshiremen.
Eight tries to five tells its own story, as both sides threw caution to the wind on a dry calm day. Winger Jonas Mikalcius, for the third time this season, weighed in with a personal tally of four touch-downs although there were good performances all over the pitch.
Having disappointed on their last appearance two weeks ago, the College started with plenty to prove and there were some unfamiliar names on the team-sheet as a long campaign in both league and university rugby had taken its toll.
There was a welcome debut in the second row for former Samoa Under-20 international Ben Chan, a long-time student at the College who has only recently become eligible for National One rugby. The replacements included young loose-head Joe Wrafter and 18-year old Robbie Forbes, a member of Hartpury’s hugely successful junior academy, both included at this level for the first time.
Hooker Will Tanner, out for so long with injury, also had a seat on the bench.
The hosts were clear favourites to win this game and were looking comfortable with barely a quarter of an hour played.
The back row all played a big part in the first try. Off a line-out near half-way, Jake Polledri embarked on a typical bullocking run. Rhys Oakley provided the continuity before Will Safe, soon to be forced off with a knock to the head, set off on a powerful burst toward the try-line.
Nippy scrum half Harry Cochrane, another to put in a good all-round performance, was on hand to finish.
Moments later, Mikalcius opened his personal account, sheer pace taking him outside his opposite man before cutting back inside the cover (pictured) to score behind the posts.
He then notched his second in the 16th minute with a simpler finish after Hartpury, combining powerful forward thrusts with sharp handling wider out, dragged the Dale defence from one side of the pitch to the other before working space for the big Lithuanian.
At this stage, it was looking as though Hartpury might surpass the 70 points they achieved against Blaydon two months ago. That they did not was due to a spirited fightback from the northerners.
Competing strongly in the loose and well-prompted by busy half-back Phil Woodhead, their forwards managed to establish some momentum and they got their reward just after the half hour when tight-head Alistair Wade was able to drive over after some good phase play from the pack.
Hartpury continued to test the Wharfedale rearguard and George Boulton, coming in-field and picking a great line, was unlucky to be pulled back for crossing. But the students are one of those sides who can score from anywhere as they proved shortly before the interval.
Declining the option to kick for safety deep in their 22, the ball was instead shipped wide to Mikalcius. With open space in front of him the winger needed no further invitation, bouncing off a couple of forlorn cover tackles in a 70-metre finish that brought him his hat-trick and Hartpury the bonus point.
Typically, Wharfedale bounced back and had the final say of the half when busy flanker Jack Barnard grabbed the first of his brace of tries. Things got better for them after the re-start when, with Hartpury stretched, centre Andrew Hodgson showed good pace to finish and close the gap to an unlikely 11 points.
The College were quickly back on the offensive and after Mikalcius was pulled down metres short, Oakley, Chan, Nathan Taylor and Tom MacDonald all threatened the line with muscular charges. Eventually the ball went wide and outstanding centre Jamie Forrester capped a man-of-the-match performance by scoring in the corner.
Minutes later, Hartpury were back in front of the Dale posts again, with half-time replacement Wrafter now carrying well. Both he and Will Tanner went close before Tom Macdonald bundled over.
Wharfedale’s spirit deserved some reward and it came when Barnard finished a catch and drive to earn a bonus point but, as the game drew to a close, a turnover ball gave Cochrane the chance to show his pace in a long-range breakout, supported all the way by Mikalcius who took the pass to score.
There was still time for Alistair Allen to get outside the College defence, before Jake Polledri, with the final play, topped off a strong personal display with a powerful finish. Gareth Thompson, whose kicking has been a little off-song recently, got back in the groove by slotting seven from eight over the course of the game.
Leaders Richmond’s unexpected draw with Ampthill leaves the door slightly ajar for Hartpury who now get another week off before travelling to fellow students, Loughborough.
Loughborough themselves are not entirely out of the woods after losing at home to Rosslyn Park and along with Blaydon, well-beaten at Esher, and Ionians, who narrowly lost at home to DMP, still have some work to do.
Cinderford and Henley both lost on the road, at Coventry and Fylde respectively, although Cinderford’s two bonus points still give them some hope. Wharfedale stay 10 points away from safety.
Blackheath slip to fifth following a 20-19 defeat at Plymouth, leaving Albion still hot on the heels of Hartpury in third place.
Hartpury: G Thompson (Cons 3, 6, 16, 39, 50, 55, 75), Boulton, Eves, Forrester (Try 49), Mikalcius Tries 6, 16, 39, 75), Perry, Cochrane (Try 3); Flook, Taylor, Brockett, Chan, Dancer, Polledri (Try 80), Safe, Oakley
Bench: Tanner, Wrafter, W Thompson, MacDonald (Try 55), Forbes
Wharfedale: H Bullough, Prell, Hodgson (Try 45), Morgan, Tai, Guy (Cons 33, 62), Woodhead; Beesley, Graham, Cano, Preston-Routledge, Willett, Burridge, Barnard (Tries 40, 61), Baldwin
Bench: Altham, Stockdale, Wade (Try 33), Allen (Try 77), J Bullough
Referee: M Hudson