After many long weeks, Hartpury finally chalked up their first win since September in this entertaining performance against their nearest rivals, Richmond.
Although Hartpury remain at the foot of the table, they are now level on points with the Surrey team and it looks to be a straight shoot-out between the two – with seven games remaining – for the right to remain in the Greene King IPA Championship next season.
Hartpury were building on an encouraging performance the previous week, at Coventry, and the calm, clear and dry conditions at the Gillman’s Ground were tailor-made for the personnel at their disposal.
The back division was largely the same as in the previous game, with the addition of experienced on-loan Bristol centre, Jack Tovey.
Gloucester’s Gareth Denman made his debut for the club at tight head, while Jake Heenan (Bristol) also made his bow, in the back row.
Given the pressurised nature of the occasion – defeat would have made survival unlikely – Hartpury started the game very well and a dominant opening 35 minutes saw them open up a good lead, based on three well-worked tries.
Mat Protheroe served a large part of his rugby apprenticeship at Hartpury and it was great to see him back and playing in his normal swash-buckling style.
He quickly made an impact, a lightning burst out of his own half making the Richmond defence appear leaden-footed in comparison.
One player on the same wavelength – and with the pace to participate – was young centre, Charlie Powell, who still had plenty do when receiving Protheroe’s floated pass.
However, he had the step to throw off Richmond winger, Marcus Webber, followed by the pace to shred the cover defence, before scoring in the corner to give Hartpury a 6th minute lead.
Richmond pushed back, to the extent that Hartpury lost winger Ben Foley to a yellow card – for slowing the ball down – in the 14th minute, but Hartpury still looked the more dangerous – often attacking from deep.
With Foley restored, Hartpury were able to extend their lead shortly before the half hour.
The forwards drove well all night and were pressing toward the line, wide on the right hand side. The ball was transferred infield and Foley was on hand to find space to sneak through the fringe defence. Lloyd Evans landed the extras to give Hartpury a 12-point advantage.
Four minutes later, Foley was heavily involved again. He made a powerful run down his wing (pictured) before feeding the ball inside. Fly-half, Evans, in turn, found the supporting Akapusi Qera and it seemed likely that the Fijian flanker would pick up his second score for the club.
He was finally pulled down about two metres short, but the ball was quickly recycled for Evans add the third try, close to the posts.
At 19-0, Hartpury were already looking for the bonus point, before half time.
However, the minutes either side of the break have frequently been a dangerous time for the Red & Blacks and this game was to be no exception.
An Evans penalty to touch appeared to be clearly knocked on by a Richmond fielder but, with nothing coming from the officials, play continued.
The ball was worked to powerful centre Henry Cheeseman, whose strong run broke some less than perfect Hartpury tackles. Full-back Rob Kirby was the eventual beneficiary, scoring in the corner with final act of the half.
Richmond enjoyed their best spell of the match immediately after the break, testing the home defence as Hartpury found it difficult to get hands on the ball. These were nervous times for the home support, although the defence was both well-organised and disciplined.
With Richmond failing to take advantage, Hartpury eventually managed to break loose and had the best of the final quarter.
The game was made safe – and the bonus point secured – on the hour.
Hartpury had an attacking line-out after the Richmond defence were forced to carry into touch. With the drive widely expected, the ball instead went long and live-wire scrum-half, Harry Cochrane, found space off the tail to nip through the visiting defence and run behind the posts.
An Evans penalty extended the advantage after another strong attack caught the visitors offside, in front of their posts.
Hartpury concluded their scoring with 10 minutes to go. Powell again showed good pace down the wing and, when he was shut down by the Richmond cover, he somehow contrived an offload to replacement scrum-half, Charlie Chapman. The youngster was clear to finish with a big dive.
Richmond kept fighting, as they had throughout, but Chris Davies’ last minute try was scant consolation on a night that belonged to Hartpury.
All three of Hartpury’s league wins this season have come at home and, with three more fixtures at the Gillman’s Ground remaining, it is likely that this is where the focus will lie. The next match is away, at high-flying Ealing Trailfinders, in two weeks’ time.
Hartpury: Protheroe, Foley (Try 29), Powell (Try 6), Tovey, Henry, Evans (Try 33, Cons 30, 34, 60, 70, Pen 67), Cochrane (Try 60); Murphy, Tanner, Denman, Craig, Linsell, Qera, Heenan, Graham. Bench: Stratford, Merrey, Morris, Ehizode, Dodd, Chapman (Try 69), Forrester.
Richmond: Kirby (Try 40, Con 79), Woodward, Mitchell, Cheeseman, Webber, Damant, Jones: Goodrick-Clark, Freestone, Trenier, Warden, Crawford, Parker, Liston, Davies (Try 79). Bench: Edgson, Cunnew, Parkinson, Lenygon, Saysell, Gibbs, Dennett.
Referee: Andrew Jackson