It was an afternoon to savour for Hartpury University RFC supporters, as the visitors took advantage of an out of sorts London Scottish to emphasise the improvements that are being made at Alpas Arena this season.
The last time Hartpury had picked up an away win in any competition was in March 2019, when they grabbed an unlikely victory in Jersey as part of that season’s escape from relegation. Only three of the match-day squad in that game – Ben Foley, Jack Tovey and Luke Stratford – were involved again yesterday, although a further two – Bert Gibson and Ehize Ehizode – were in the Scottish squad.
Ironically, the next fixture back in 2019, another narrow victory, was at home against Bedford Blues, who are visitors next weekend. Will history repeat itself?
Another milestone yesterday was that Hartpury’s 62 points, featuring nine tries – many of them from long range – was by some margin their best return from any match in the club’s Championship history. The previous best was at home against the beleaguered Yorkshire Carnegie (45) two years ago.
The story of the game was that London Scottish remained competitive on the scoreboard until half-time, but somewhat disintegrated after the break as Hartpury took control to play with a freedom that hasn’t always been the hallmark of their performances since the National League days.
It was a game played at a frantic pace – it was not always pretty to watch, but there was plenty to keep the crowd entertained. Hartpury always had the edge in terms of discipline and execution and the gap became a chasm in the second half as Scottish lost their shape.
It had started well for the home team when Rory Hughes had crossed after some smart back-play early on and, although Hartpury pulled level with a line-out drive through Harry Short (his fifth in four games), they went back in front as former Hartpury hooker, Nick Selway, finished their own 12-man attacking maul.
Hartpury finally got ahead in the second quarter when George Simpson, on his first start this season, finished some excellent phase play. Hartpury stretched the Scottish defence beyond breaking point and good hands put Simpson into space with the line at his mercy.
It was 12-20 to the visitors moments later. Ben Foley did the damage with a strong run from deep in own half and, despite being pulled down just short, was able to feed big brother Charlie for the try – his first for the club since arriving in the summer.
When Robbie Smith finished strongly, brushing off some questionable Exiles tackling to go under the posts in the 32nd minute, it looked as though Hartpury might stretch away unhindered. However, another driven lineout, this time finished by James Tyas on a secondary pick and go, narrowed the gap on the stroke of half time.
Scottish needed to score early in the second half to build on the momentum of that late try, but instead it was the visitors who hammered home their advantage. Settling quickly into their work, tries were not long in coming.
Skipper Will Crane was the next to profit, again breaking tackles before sprinting for line, and Simpson got on the end of another sharp move, having to outstrip the cover before finishing with a flourish (main picture).
Crane added his second from a drive minutes later and the game – over now as a contest – entered a slightly scrappy phase before Hartpury cut loose again towards the end.
Scottish had possession in the second half, but their attacks lacked composure and more than once promising positions were wasted by careless play.
Jack Tovey, a summer signing who had been side-lined with injury – his previous outings had been on loan from the Bears – came on to create more mayhem in the Exiles defence and his break created a first Hartpury try for replacement scrum-half Oscar Lennon as his team closed in on the final result.
The final nail in the Scottish coffin came from Number 8, Nahum Merigan, also a first try for the club and a fitting reward for some powerful ball-carrying.
Hartpury DoR, John Barnes, was pleased with the performance.
“We’re delighted with the win and with the five points,” he said.
“We were a little bit frustrated at half-time with some aspects of our performance and the fact that we let them back into the game.”
“It was important that we managed to put the game to bed early in the second half and it was good to see some of the returning players getting some game time. Job done.”
The result leaves Hartpury in 3rd place in the Championship table after five games, although they will be the last of the 11 teams to have to sit out a bye week. We are also the second-highest scorers, after Ealing Trailfinders, although again, some of the teams around us have played a game less.
As mentioned above, the next fixture will be at home to free-scoring Bedford Blues in what could be an absolute cracker. The Blues have won two of their four matches this season, yesterday slipping up at home to a strong-starting Richmond.
It would be great to have another big crowd for this one…