Hartpury extended their perfect start to the season by recording a bonus point win, their sixth in as many outings, against a plucky and determined team from Humberside.
It was not a performance that had the coaches purring, but six tries to two was enough to keep the good run going on a perfect afternoon for running rugby.
Having seen off the physical challenge of Coventry in their last outing, the leaders were braced for another attritional encounter, although, ultimately, the game was open and free-flowing and it was only the wastefulness of the home team that kept things tight until well into the second half.
Neither side could have wished for better conditions, as there was a dry, firm surface and only the lightest of breezes.
Hartpury, again, were able to ring the changes without significantly weakening the match-day squad. Injuries to Wilcox and Boulton in the backs were off-set by the availability of England U20 flyer Darren Atkins and another debutant, Elias Caven from Bristol Rugby.
The forward pack saw the return of lock Joe Quinn, while skipper Rhys Oakley shifted to the back row and Jake Polledri was held back to allow James Stephenson a start on the flank.
Ben Chan’s return from injury was rewarded with a place on the bench, alongside former USA international Robbie Shaw, after a summer with Ohio in the USA Pro League.
The hosts started brightly and a Jacob Perry penalty was quickly followed by the day’s first try, when centre Luke Eves added his weight to a driven lineout before getting the final touch.
Eves doubled his tally early in the second quarter. His midfield partner Steve Leonard made the important break and, after scrum half Harry Randall was dragged down two metres short, Eves was on hand to surge over.
Hartpury were playing with enterprise and intent, but a series of errors at critical moments were enough to keep things in check and, between the two home scores, Hull winger Ben Foley had seized on some sloppy midfield play to claim the loose ball and sprint home for a try.
In fact, the hosts, for all their possession, needed to survive a yellow card to Stephenson, shortly before the break, to stay in front.
The next breakthrough came again through centre Eves, managing to reach out of the tackle to touch down, after seeming to be held up on the line. It was not the most spectacular hat-trick to have been seen at the Gillman’s Ground, but it put Hartpury closer to the bonus point.
The all-important fourth try was duly delivered in the 55th minute, as the hosts started to turn the screw on Ionians, finally starting to play with some accuracy. The forwards drove deep into Hull territory before quick ball saw Leonard with plenty of space to finish near to the posts (pictured).
Hartpury’s lineout has long been a source of strength and this game was no exception. Even when the visitors did build a good attacking position of their own, twice kicking penalties to touch close to the Hartpury line, the hosts were able steal the ball and relieve the pressure.
However, it was from a scrum that the fifth try came. It was Steve Leonard again, capping a fine individual performance by cutting through a tiring defence to score a good individual try.
Joe Dancer, the source of much of Hartpury’s ascendancy at the lineout, is not your typical League One lock forward. Tall and slender, he would be equally at home in the back row and he had a chance to show his pace as the match drew to a close.
Receiving the ball near his own 22, he spotted the gap and turned on the gas. Outpacing the Ionians midfield defence, his run took him to within five metres of the visitors’ line before an unselfish offload gave danger man Jonas Mikalcius the easiest finish he is likely to get this season.
A sloppy restart did give Ionians the chance to launch a late attack, full-back Ben Winterburn eventually going over in the corner, but the contest was over and the Hartpury run was intact.
Next week, they will have to deal with the long trip north to face bottom club Blaydon, who will be desperate to put a poor start behind them as they fight for survival.
Elsewhere, Moseley ran riot, topping 70 points against Cambridge while Blackheath were not too far behind as they beat Blaydon 59-17. Ampthill were off to flyer with three early tries although Macclesfield did well to keep it respectable at 12-28 to the visitors.
It sounds like an entertaining afternoon at the Woodlands where Fylde followed up last week’s win over Esher by pipping Plymouth Albion in a 39-37 thriller. Esher themselves recovered by beating Coventry 34-14 in Surrey. Loughborough Students and Rosslyn Park were another pair to go toe to toe and could not be separated after 80 minutes, 24-all the final score.
The day’s other game saw DMP stay in touch with the leading pack by beating Old Albanian 22-9 at home. The results mean that Hartpury remain seven points clear of Moseley, Blackheath and Ampthill, the latter two of which meet in Bedfordshire next weekend. Moseley travel to Rosslyn Park.
Hartpury: Atkins (Con 56), Caven, Leonard (Tries 55, 70), Eves (Tries 11, 27, 48), Mikalcius (Try 74), Perry (Pen 3, Cons 28, 49), Randall; Flook, Tanner, Brockett, Quinn, Dancer, Gilbert, Stephenson, Oakley. Replacements: Merrey, Thompson, Chan, Polledri, Shaw (Cons 71, 74)
Ionians: Winterburn (Try 77), Foley (Try 15), Hudson, Wright, Wilson, Lound (Cons 15, 78), Boxhall; Dias, Forth, Stout, Cotterill, Makin, Poole, Foden, Bray. Replacements: Thomson, Johnson, Pardo, Green, Bullough
Referee: James Sullivan