Hartpury were pushed all the way by a resolute Albion in the final outing of 2016.
This was always going to be a big test for Hartpury as Albion, defending an unbeaten home record, got a crack at the run-away league leaders in front of a bumper pre-Christmas crowd.
Ultimately, the Red & Blacks managed to extend their winning run to 16 games, largely thanks to a purple patch in the second quarter when three tries in eleven minutes, the last coming on the stroke of half time, gave them just enough to get home.
Not since early in their current run, when they won a tight game at Coventry, has any team got within 10 points of the Gloucestershire side, but Albion came mighty close to giving some hope to themselves and the other hopefuls trailing in Hartpury’s wake.
Despite a pitch that has tended to get heavy in the past, conditions were actually pretty good on a dry, mild day with hardly a breath of wind.
Hartpury were fielding a strong selection – the unavailability of scrum half Ben Vellacott, so effective in recent weeks, off-set by the return of England Under-20 man Harry Randall. Centre Steve Leonard and tearaway flanker Jake Polledri were also back in the side.
It was the home team who started better and early pressure at the scrum brought penalties which moved them up the field. They were rewarded after six minutes when a huge shove from their heavier pack overturned a Hartpury feed and the ball was quickly used for centre Seta Raumakita to score. Player-coach Kieran Hallett added the extras.
Hartpury had problems at the set piece throughout the afternoon. Albion made frequent use of their physical advantage at the scrum and they also regularly stole ball from the, normally, ultra-efficient visiting line-out.
However, Hartpury are not unbeaten league leaders by accident and they were quick to collect themselves and work their way back into the game.
With pressure building, it was Albion’s turn to earn the referee’s displeasure and the reliable boot of Jacob Perry – 100 per cent from the tee in this match – had the visitors back to within a point by the end of the first quarter.
They took a lead, which they would not relinquish, just before the half-hour. Eventually the home defence was overpowered and a ball moved into midfield saw Leonard pick a good line through the centres and under the posts.
The whole pack were now playing their part, but it was the lean presence of lock forward Joe Dancer that really caught the eye. On more than one occasion he tore big holes in the Plymouth defence with his pace and outstanding support play.
One such charge out of defence saw him put winger Jonas Mikalcius in the clear, but on this occasion the big Lithuanian was frustrated by an excellent last-ditch tackle from his opposite number, Matt Crosscombe.
Set-pieces were still a problem for Hartpury and penalties in quick succession saw them give up 70 metres of territory, ending in Albion kicking to the corner. The catch and drive could not be stopped and flanker Dan Williams picked up the first of his three tries, to make it 12-13. Hallett badly shanked his conversion, which was to be significant in the final outcome.
The game was proving to be every bit as close as had been expected, but the balance of power shifted dramatically as half time approached.
First, after more good work from the pack, Randall opted to tap and go in the shadow of the Albion posts. Eventually held by the defence, he was able to off-load to supporting flanker Gilbert who was unstoppable from 10 metres out (pictured, enjoying the moment).
And the roles were reversed almost from the restart. Gilbert found room along the right touchline before a ball inside gave Randall an uninterrupted run to the line. Suddenly, it was 12-27 and another score would put Hartpury out of sight.
But it did not come. Apart from a couple of break-outs, the majority of the second half was played in the Hartpury half. Whenever Hartpury did threaten, the set-piece issues resurfaced and allowed Albion to clear.
Perry’s missed penalty kick to touch brought more pressure, before the defence finally cracked, allowing Williams to score with half an hour to play. Later, with the clock ticking down, he was in again after Albion had stolen a Hartpury lineout deep in the away team’s half. Again Hallett was wide with a seemingly straightforward conversion.
The defence, overall, was its usual well-organised self, and the game ended, not a moment too soon, when Albion were penalised in a desperate final effort. By defeating one of their closest pursuers, and with Moseley going down at Coventry, Hartpury go into a three-week break with an extended 22-point lead at the top of the table and plenty to look forward to in 2017.
Plymouth Albion: Shepherd, Crosscombe, Raumakita (Try 6), Powell, Wedlake, Hallett (Cons 7, 52), Setter; Norton, Cowan-Dickie, Nixon, Dacres, Holmes, Williams (Tries 36, 51, 77), Mills, Stupple. Replacements: Street, Prisk, Freestone, Squire, Strong.
Hartpury RFC: Wilcox, Davis, Leonard (Try 29), Eves, Mikalcius, Perry (Cons 29, 39, 40. Pens 14, 19), Randall (Try 40); Flook, Tanner, Clarey, Oakley, Dancer, Polledri, Gilbert (Try 38), Safe. Replacements: Stephenson, Merrey, Thompson, Quinn, Shaw.
Referee: Gareth Holsgrove.