Hartpury were eventually outplayed by a second half Coventry performance that was full of power, pace and precision as they collected seven tries in this bonus point win.
The Midlanders had some difficulties at times earlier in the game with a badly mis-firing lineout, and were reduced to 13 men late in the first half as Hartpury’s best spell of the match saw them concede two yellow cards under pressure.
Indeed, the Red & Blacks were still very much in this game until the final quarter, following a marvellous 57th minute try – created by an exceptional James Williams break from fly-half (pictured – courtesy LNC Images) and finished by the outright pace of Toby Venner. But then Coventry eased away and were comfortable by the final 10 minutes.
“I think we panicked a little bit and tried to over-complicate things in the first half,” said Coventry’s Director of Rugby, Rowland Winter.
“I was glad to see that we solved that problem as the game went on, and were able to take advantage once the gaps started to open up.”
Hartpury had stuck largely with the squad that had travelled for the previous week’s crazy game at Ampthill. The major alteration came at scrum half, where former student Venner was available for his first Championship start since his only previous appearance, at Yorkshire Carnegie in the closing game of the 2018-19 season. Venner, of course, has since signed for Gloucester and made his premiership debut earlier this season, marking that occasion with a try-double against reigning champions, the Exeter Chiefs.
Conditions could hardly be better. Two weeks of sunshine had produced a firm, dry surface, and there was enough breeze blowing the length of the pitch to add some interest.
The visitors opened the game well and took an early lead with hooker Jordan Poole driving over from close range with just four minutes on the clock.
Hartpury were looking off the pace in first quarter and when Coventry scored again through Ryan Burrows at the end of the first quarter, it looked as though they were in for a relaxed afternoon. This was despite a lineout that simply failed to operate – remarkably Coventry could not win a single one in the opening 40.
But, gradually, things began to improve for Hartpury as they fought their way back into the game from a 0-12 deficit. There was a touch of luck about their first try, as Coventry were loose in possession on half-way and both Williams and Robbie Smith were there in the hunt for the bouncing ball. It was Smith, the centre, who finally got his hands on it before racing away to score under the posts.
Encouraged, the Red and Blacks started to find more gaps in the Coventry defence and looked on the verge of a breakthrough when Coventry’s Sam Aspland-Robinson – on his debut on dual registration from Leicester Tigers – saw yellow for a last-ditch high tackle.
Williams kicked a further penalty, before the hosts got a further boost when Jordan Cameron was also carded for a tip-tackle. If the sanction looked a little harsh, there was little doubt the the tide of the game had changed.
The Hartpury come-back reached it’s peak five minutes before the break. As penalties continued to come, a quick tap from Venner caught the visiting defence flat-footed and he was sharply under the posts to take Hartpury into a 17-12 lead (pictured, right, courtesy LNC Images).
But if the home team were expecting to take a lead into the break, they were to be disappointed as the reduced Coventry pack did well to drive close to the line before fly-half Tony Fenner scored in the corner.
There was a sense that, with use of the lively breeze to come, the Red & Blacks were in good shape to go on and extend an impressive home record over Coventry.
But they came back out a little bit flat and Williams’ moment of brilliance was to be a rare flash of light in a 40 that almost completely belonged to the visitors. Flanker Senitki Nayalo scored after a 5-metre scrum to secure the bonus point and then, after the Venner score, replacement forward, Sam Lewis, helped himself to a double, both scored after good off-loading and support play.
Hartpury laboured to try and salvage something in the final quarter, but the final result was already beyond question by the time Cameron Jordan finished the scoring.
Hartpury’s Mark Cornwell was disappointed by his team’s display.
“It was the same set of problems all over again,” he said. “The attitude is still not right and it’s a problem that we need to sort out quickly.”
A final word of praise goes to the kickers. Williams and Fenner between them landed a total of 10 out of 11 kicks at goal in tricky conditions.
Hartpury now have an extended break – including a bye week – before travelling to the Cornish Pirates in mid-May. The final home game of the season will be against the Jersey Reds on May 22nd. a game that Hartpury will be targeting as a potential win. it is also a day on which, if all goes to plan, we hope to be able to admit spectators back into the Alpas.
Hartpury: Bragman, S. Smith, R. Smith (Try 23), Eves, Foley, Williams (Cons 24, 36, 58. Pen 32), Venner (Tries 35, 57); Holsey, Crane, Knight, Lemon, Ehizode, Safe, Ward, Monks. Bench: Stratford, Porter, Walsh, Clark, Wilson, Jones, Goatley, Simpson.
Coventry: Brown, Knox, Butt, Forsyth, Aspland-Robinson, Fenner (Try 39), Snow; Jeannot, Poole (Try 4), Boulton, Dacres, Jordan (Try 75), Nayalo (Try 48), Peters, Burrows (Try 20). Bench: Doughty, Trinder, Gibson, Lewis (Tries 64, 68) Nutley, White, Mitchell, Martin