Hartpury College 71 - Blaydon RFC 12
The visitors were, perhaps, unlucky to meet Hartpury on a day when everything clicked and they finally produced the kind of purposeful, dynamic performance that we have been waiting a few weeks for.
Apart from early in the first half when an interception gave them a gift of a try, the visitors were hardly in the game as Hartpury’s high-octane approach had them stretched beyond breaking point.
Conditions were kind to the hosts who finally got to play with a dry ball on a firm surface, with hardly a breath of wind to influence the tactics. Not that kicking, Gareth Thompson’s eight successful conversions aside, played a significant part in the Hartpury game plan.
The College had lost Will Safe to injury, but were glad to be able to welcome back all-action flanker Dan Thomas in his place. Safe joined another line-out ‘banker’, Joe Dancer, in being unavailable but there was no cause for concern as James Voss quickly and successfully assumed their aerial duties.
Ben Vellacott was back at scrum half in place of the injured Robbie Shaw and was partnered by Jacob Perry, whose switch from full-back allowed a recall for Thompson.
It was evident from the early exchanges that this was a team looking far more focused and hungry than they had in recent weeks. In eventually racking up 71 points, they comfortably achieved their highest score since arriving in National One, at the same time consigning Blaydon to their record defeat in a league they have graced for almost 10 years.
But it was the manner of the victory, more than the scoreline, that was so impressive as the College varied the play intelligently, using forwards such as Jake Polledri, Steve Pape, Voss and later Des Merrey, to smash the ball up the pitch before releasing their free-flowing back division. Dan Thomas, as usual, just turned up everywhere.
Centres Steve Leonard and Luke Eves are both powerful, pacy runners and their potent combination was a constant source of strife for the Tynesiders who found the sheer physicality of their play difficult to live with.
The College forwards were strong at the set-piece and, by the closing stages, Blaydon’s scrummage, usually a source of strength, was creaking badly.
At the heart of everything, half backs Vellacott and Perry pulled the strings, with the Scotland Under-20 scrum half in particular tormenting Blaydon, as his personal tally of four tries can testify.
Not that he was the only player to score four times, as strapping Lithuanian winger Jonas Mikalcius also battered his way over repeatedly. In fact, only a handling error as he grounded behind the posts, mid-way through the second half, prevented him from taking his personal tally to five.
For the record, Hartpury’s first came from man-of-the-match Luke Eves who had a simple finish after being released by Leonard (pictured).
Mikalcius’ first was an individual effort as he shrugged off two tacklers and stepped past another in a 40-metre run to the line. Then Leonard himself repeated the dose as Hartpury attacked from deep. The centre was able to beat his man near his own 22 and then had the pace to see off the cover defence.
Eves and Leonard combined to put Vellacott clear on 27 minutes and Mikalcius came up with another powerful finish shortly afterwards to secure the bonus point.
Hartpury changed shirts from black to red at half time, much to the relief of the crowd – had it not been one-way traffic the two teams might have been hard to distinguish. What didn’t change was the intensity of the performance and within minutes of the re-start Mikalcius, released by Thomas, had again barged his way through some questionable defence to score.
The celebrations were barely over when Vellacott spotted a gap in the Blaydon ranks and trotted in from 40 metres. The visitors had also managed a score from a catch and drive before Hartpury had to reshuffle when Steve Leonard was forced off with a knock, not thought to be overly serious.
It offered no respite to Blaydon. A mazy run from Thompson and a good kick-chase from replacement prop Merrey created a hat-trick try for Vellacott before superb off-loads from Thomas and then Eves saw Perry gallop over untouched.
Into the final minutes and there was still time for Vellacott to shred the Blaydon defence after a quickly taken tap penalty. The final play saw Perry’s clever angled kick bounce into the arms of Mikalcius who needed no further invitation.
Wins for both Richmond, at home to Esher, and Blackheath, who entertained Rosslyn Park, mean that Hartpury stay third in the league. Loughborough boosted their survival chances by thumping Cinderford, whilst Wharfedale jumped above Blaydon by seeing off the seemingly doomed Henley.
DMP continued their remarkable run of victories against 14-man Ampthill and Coventry’s disappointing season continued with defeat at Plymouth.
The result ensures that Hartpury will be in good heart for what is sure to be a testing derby visit to Cinderford next week.
Hartpury: G Thompson (Cons 11, 23, 27, 30, 44, 66, 78, 80), Boulton, Leonard (Try 23), Eves (Try 10), Mikalcius (Tries 15, 29, 43, 80), Perry (Try 66), Vellacott (Tries 26, 44, 61, 78); Flook, Taylor, Brockett, Pape, Voss, Polledri, Thomas, Oakley.
Bench: Stephenson, W Thompson, Merrey, MacDonald, Evans
Blaydon: Adamson, Grimes (Try 13), Bramwell, Baggett, Wilson, Connon, Horsfall; White, Guignouard, Kalbraier, Wearmouth, Witty, Smithson (Try 46), J Davidson, Jones
Bench: Nelson, T Davidson, Gullan, Cooney, Ward
Referee James Clarke