What a difference a week makes!
The lacklustre performance v Richmond was well and truly forgotten as Hartpury put in a display that would match any of their better efforts this season.
Jersey fielded a strong side and it was nice to see returning former Hartpury student and BUCS Super Rugby-winner, Tom Everard, in their starting line-up.
The teams were playing the first of two legs for a place in the semi-final of the Championship Cup competition.
The home team came out of the blocks fastest with some excellent attacking play, a superb move involving multiple hands leading to a break from Sam Smith who fed opposite winger Alex Forrester. He, in turn, threw a brilliant 15m inside ball to Robbie Smith who would canter over….. or so we thought. As everyone began to celebrate the opening score, we’d missed the final ‘put down’….
Unfortunately, Smith was deemed to have dropped the ball in the act of scoring! A disappointing end to a brilliant attacking passage.
In keeping with this error, James Williams, the league’s top points-scorer, missed a straightforward penalty attempt from in front and somehow the score remained 0-0.
Jersey’s playing style and reputation is largely based around their strong forward pack, but it was to be the backs that inflicted the first half damage on Hartpury.
On the Reds’ first meaningful attack, a three-phase set move, directed down the blindside, left space for Brendan Cope to find space and finish well in the corner.
With the conversion missed the score was 0-5 to the away side.
Hartpury continued to play well, going through multiple phases but a big, physical Jersey defence kept them at bay.
Finally, home field position was gained from a penalty kick and, with advantage being played from the resulting set-piece, a Williams cross-field kick was gathered in by Forrester, who sped over the line and behind the posts.
With the conversion added Hartpury were deservedly in front 7-5
This lead didn’t last long, however, as Jersey increased their tempo with the ball. Two well-executed tries were scored in quick succession from Scott Van Breda – the South African perhaps benefitting from an earlier 10-minute rest in the bin for a slightly harsh yellow card.
Both tries came from set play attacking moves and, with both converted by Cope, suddenly the task for Hartpury looked tough, with a 7-19 deficit.
However, that was to be the end of the Reds’ scoring in the match as, unlike last week, Hartpury threw everything into both defence and attack.
The step up in physicality was evident and led superbly by student back row forward, Joe Howard.
The reward for this effort came with two minutes remaining in the half, when George Simpson strongly finished off another good Hartpury attack.
Williams missed the conversion but it left it a one score game going into the second half.
Both teams returned to the field and were straight back at it. Jersey bludgeoned at the Hartpury line for phase after phase but, unlike so many times this year, Hartpury held firm until a Reds infringement allowed the home side to clear their lines.
The second half remained scoreless as the rolling subs began to enter the field. There was little let up in the intensity, though, as both teams had their chances.
Hartpury finally got an opportunity near the visitor’s line and, after some strong forward carries, Jersey-born Luke Stratford managed an offload to Williams who burrowed over for, strangely, his first try of the season. He converted the score himself, and we were tied at 19-19.
There was still time for Jersey to create one further period of pressure with multiple drives close to the Hartpury line but, to the cheers of the home crowd, that ended when Hartpury turned the ball over.
A long kick to touch line meant one last chance for Hartpury from 50m out. There was a moment of further excitement as young replacement scrum half, Rhys Price, found a gap of the tail of the line out and burst through.
As the covering defence swarmed he grubbed kicked through only for the ball to find touch. The ref blew the whistle and the game finished all tied at 19-19
This was a superb game of rugby, from two physical, committed and skilful teams. A draw was an accurate reflection of the match.
Hartpury’ s improvements from last week were evident and the coaches will know that they need the same next week, on the island, if they are to stand a chance of progressing through to the semi-final stage.
The second leg will be played next Friday, 6th May, at the Stade Santander International, Jersey, with a 7.45pm kick off.