Hartpury produced a second-half full of fight and character to ultimately out-score their hosts by four tries to three, under the lights at Lady Bay.
Scores from Ed Sheldon, BJ Edwards and Joe Quinn, added to one on the stroke of half-time by Luke Eves, even had supporters thinking that an unlikely victory could be on the cards.
Two bonus points were the eventual reward on the night although, not for the first time this season, Hartpury might reflect that a full 80-minute performance could have brought much more. A poor first half had left them with simply too much to do by the time they found their rhythm.
Not to take anything away from Nottingham. A zippy opening 40 minutes had threatened to put them out of sight by the interval and they continued to pose a significant threat after the break, even with Hartpury’s resurgence.
Despite rain throughout the week, the game was played on an excellent surface which had stood up well to a curtain-raiser between Nottingham Trent and Exeter universities in the BUCS championship. The evening was dry, with only a moderate breeze to worry the players.
For most of the opening period it was one-way traffic, as Nottingham dominated. Although by no means the biggest or most physical pack in the Championship, the Green & White forwards were doing enough to provide a plentiful supply of ball to a back line that was happy to play with width.
In this they were assisted by the whistle of Mr Leal, as a stream of penalties, primarily at the breakdown, quickly took the steam out of any Hartpury pressure and enabled the home team to enjoy long periods on the offensive.
Two penalties, kicked by the impressive Tiff Eden, quickly had the hosts into a 6-0 lead and it was no great shock when the first try came after 16 minutes. The Nottingham forwards did the hard work before the ball was moved wide to leave full-back Sean Scanlon with the simplest of finishes on the left.
Things got worse for the men in red shortly before the break. Yet another penalty was kicked to touch in the Hartpury 22 and although the visitors were able to defend the initial drives, the ball was moved infield for Oli Evans to dive under the posts untouched.
Eden converted both tries and still had time to drop a goal to move Nottingham into a 23-0 lead.
It was against the run of play when Hartpury opened their account in the closing seconds of the half. Perry’s chip over the defence was not dealt with and centre Luke Eves reacted quickest to score under the sticks.
Whatever was said in the dressing rooms certainly had an effect as Hartpury, buoyed by the Eves life-line, were a different proposition after the re-start.
Some superb driving play by the forwards took them close to the Nottingham line and, when the ball was moved wide left, there was space for Ed Sheldon, making his league debut for Hartpury, to score in the corner.
At 23-14, after Perry’s excellent conversion, Hartpury at least had a sniff. Things got a great deal better in the 55th minute when, after more sustained pressure, lock forward BJ Edwards – who had a good night overall – crashed over to make it a two-point game.
All credit to Nottingham, who could easily have folded at this point, but instead rallied themselves to get back on the front foot. They got their reward, five minutes into the final quarter, when another sweeping attack allowed replacement scrum half Murray McConnell to score an unconverted try in the corner.
Eden may have missed the extras, but he was on target with nine minutes to go when a second drop goal stretched the lead back out to 10 points. Hartpury now needed a score to avoid leaving empty-handed.
An over-thrown lineout, in a good attacking position, looked to have wasted their final chance, but there was still time for some late drama. James Williams, a second half replacement, found some space in midfield and set-off towards the Nottingham line.
He was denied five metres short but, when the ball was recycled through some excellent Hartpury support play, there was replacement lock Joe Quinn – on since late in the first half for skipper Rhys Oakley – to go over for a rare but well-deserved try (pictured).
Hartpury next face one of the pre-season favourites to challenge Bristol, Doncaster Knights. That game will be played at the Gillman’s Ground on Saturday, 7th October with a 2.30pm kick off.
Nottingham: Scanlon (Try 16), Robinson, Evans (Try 37), Lyons, Cobden, Eden (Cons 17, 37. Drop Goals 38, 71. Pens 2, 9), Veenendaal; West, Brownlie, Burke, Cardall, Qualter, Morris, Coghlan, Buckley. Replacements: Penman, Sio, Stuart, Poullet, Everard, McConnell (Try 64), Millett.
Hartpury: Wilcox, Ducker, Boulton, Eves (Try 40), Sheldon (Try 43), Perry (Cons 40, 43, 55, 80), Randall; Murphy, Walker, Harden, Edwards (Try 55), Oakley, Langley, Gilbert, Dyer. Replacements: Crane, Merrey, Gibson, Quinn (Try 79), Grieve, Williams, Chapman.
Referee: Adam Leal