Hartpury needed a last-gasp try from full-back George Simpson, his third against this opposition in the current season, to rescue a draw in a game which the visitors – propping up the table for all of the campaign – could, and probably should, have won.
Certainly, that was the view of Exiles Head Coach, Matt Williams, who said “I can’t be prouder than I am right now.”
“It’s ironically two points dropped by us but, when you’re scrapping and fighting, three points away at Hartpury is a brilliant performance. Today we ‘out-rugbyed’ Hartpury and that excites me.”
James Williams’ magnificent touchline conversion, echoing a kick that so nearly brought an epic win at Coventry in the previous week, tied up the scores at 31-31, the sides walking away with three league points apiece.
All of the pre-match chatter had been about Hartpury’s inclusion of England international Nathan Hughes – a high-profile loanee from the Bristol Bears – and Hartpury had started the game as if determined to live up to his Premiership standards.
An early free kick was tapped and strongly carried by Oli Robinson before back-row colleague, Mitch Eadie, was on hand to collect his first Hartpury try, in the opening minute.
Fears grew for Scottish when, after sustained, high-tempo Hartpury pressure, the home team were in again. Hughes and Robinson combined well down the left flank before scrum-half Toby Venner darted in for his fifth try in five games. Williams converted both to make it 14-0 with 10 minutes played.
Things began to unravel for the hosts when they lost loose-head Totti Benz-Salomon shortly afterwards and, despite continuing to press, became untidy in possession.
Despite a difficult season, Scottish have always maintained an effective scrum and the tide began to turn when they won a penalty – the first of many – at the quarter-way mark. It allowed their first serious incursion into Hartpury territory but, more importantly, signalled a notable shift in momentum.
Strong at the set-piece and drive, they dominated the remainder of the half and had their reward when replacement back, Sam Hanks, was put into the corner by scrum-half Dan Nutton. Harry Shepherd kicked well to halve the deficit and, before half-time, Hartpury lost Eadie to a yellow card as the Exiles pressed again.
The second period started as the first had finished until, with the hosts just restored to 15, Cam King scored from close range to level things up, after some strong, physical running from the Scottish backs.
With 25 minutes to play Hartpury flickered back into life when an effective line-out drive, gained after aggressive pressure on the Scottish exit, produced a debut score for the admirable Hughes, playing well in an unfamiliar cause and looking head and shoulders above those around him.
The game took another turn minutes later when an injury to replacement home loose-head, Ciaran Knight, resulted in uncontested scrums for the remainder of the match. Ironically, this deprived the Scots of a major weapon, but it was a handicap that they were to shrug off.
A Williams penalty extended the Hartpury lead to 10 points before the Exiles finally took the game by the scruff of the neck.
Beware the old boy. Prop Alex Gibson was a highly-regarded student player at Hartpury – winning three BUCS Super Rugby national titles and being rewarded with his first semi-pro contract – before heading off for pastures new in 2020.
Now at Scottish – among a large former Hartpury contingent – the second half replacement, freed from energy-sapping work at scrum-time, decided to run around a lot and his close range tries, both improved by Shepherd, in the 67th and 71st minutes, edged the visitors in front.
A Shepherd penalty with less than five minutes to go made it a 7-point game and Hartpury were staring down the barrel of an unexpected defeat.
Launching a final attack, they won a penalty as Scots failed to release and opted for the ‘no pressure’ scrum with a minute to play.
Hughes broke strongly from the base to leave Simpson with a simple task, before Williams’ final high-point.
Hartpury’s John Barnes was sombre in his assessment of the game.
“We are extremely disappointed,” he said. “We played well for 10 minutes, but after then a lot of errors and a very ill-disciplined performance gave Scottish everything they needed. They played well. They were more physical than us and they were unlucky not to win.”
“Nathan Hughes was clearly our best player. It’s just a shame that nobody else stepped up to match his efforts.”