Hull Ionians 37 - Hartpury College 32
Having lost the first and last games of last season to Yorkshire-based opposition, Hartpury had the chance to improve their record in the county when they travelled to meet newly-promoted Ionians.
The fact that they did not owed much to a frenetic and error-strewn performance in which they squandered the early advantage and failed to capitalise on a strong breeze after half-time.
Featuring only a handful of players who appeared in the final game at Wharfedale last time out, it was a youthful-looking squad who went north. Gone are the experienced heads of Jackson and Carter in the backs, whilst injury to Steve Leonard stripped the side of another seasoned campaigner.
The pack had a more settled look and, early on, had their opponents on the back foot through a combination of powerful carries and quickly re-cycled ball. The line-out functioned well throughout, although Ionians were able to use their beefier forwards to exert pressure at the scrum.
With good possession and pace outside, Hartpury’s opening attacks had the small travelling support anticipating a bumper afternoon. New scrum-half Robbie Shaw looked sharp and opened the scoring in only the second minute. His opposite number, Isaac Green, was forced into a defensive clearance, but Shaw was up in a flash to charge down his kick and be first to the loose ball.
Gareth Thompson was unable to convert into the wind and also missed a penalty shortly after, but such was the strength of Hartpury’s start that surely it was only a matter of time before more points followed?
Green made amends for his early lapse with a well-struck penalty for the hosts after 12 minutes. This was his first of seven successful kicks on the day and his 100% performance from the kicking tee was significant in the outcome.
But it hardly seemed to matter moments later as Thompson produced good pace and a perfectly timed pass for flyer Mark Harrison, making his first League One appearance, to leave the defence for dead as he scored in the corner. Thompson’s kick had the score at 12-3; the biggest lead that either side would enjoy.
The second quarter started with a counter-blow from Ionians, from another charged-down kick. This time experienced player-coach Alex Crockett was able to block Thompson’s attempted clearance and he, too, was first to the loose ball.
The game, largely one-way up until this point, now became more of an even contest and the period until the break became a bewildering bout of punch and counter-punch, as both sides seemed able to score at will.
Ionians had their noses on front in the 25th minute when, after a couple of phases, a ball moved wide found winger Aquile Smith in acres of space to touch down.
Mark Harrison added to his personal tally shortly afterwards. Fed by flanker Callum Bowden he again showed good ‘wheels’ to collect his own well-weighted chip ahead and finish under the posts.
Ill-discipline, one of scourges of last season for Hartpury, made an unwelcome re-appearance as the half progressed and Green, with two more kicks, was able to keep his side in touch.
The final act of the half was another Hartpury try, bringing not only the interval lead but the bonus point. Centre Jamie Forrester made the best of a slightly scruffy pass in midfield and had the pace and the footwork to beat the Ionians defence (pictured) and leave Thompson with another kickable conversion.
26-23 to the visitors at the break. Surely the second half, with the strong breeze at their backs, would bring Hartpury the win?
Well, no. The second period was a frustrating affair in which Hartpury were unable to build any kind of pressure. An early Thompson kick extended the lead before a try from Bateman, fed by the impressive Crockett (ex-Bath and Bristol) had Ionians back in front.
Thompson completed Hartpury’s scoring in the 54th minute with another kick, but again the advantage was short-lived as Ionians second row Campbell barrelled over from short range.
The final quarter had the visiting coaches tearing their hair out as Hartpury became increasingly dishevelled in attempts to pull the game out of the fire. Mistakes were now abundant and, when advantage was gained, Thompson was wide with a couple of long range kicks.
Even a slightly soft-looking red card to Ionians forward Eggleshaw with 10 minutes to go could not give them the platform they needed.
There was drama in the closing seconds. With Ionians seeking to run down the clock, Hartpury won a turnover and launched an ambitious rolling maul from 40 yards out. Despite an incredible effort, the fact that they fluffed the grounding, although making it over the line, summed up the afternoon.
We would like to thank Ionians for their superb hospitality and look forward to the return meeting at the end of the season.
Next week Hartpury entertain Fylde at the College (2.30pm).
Ionians: M Bateman, A Smith, J Allott, A Crockett, S Wilson, J Ferguson, I Green; D Laverick, A Thomson, S Johnson, D Paul, A Campbell, W Foden, J Sanders, P Eggleshaw
Bench: J Elliott, M Wigham, L Cowen, G Lound, D Booth
Hartpury: G Thompson, J Mikalcius, J Forrester, G Boulton, M Harrison, J Perry, R Shaw; M Flook, W Tanner, T Brockett, S Pape, T MacDonald, J Polledri, C Bowden, S Negri
Bench: N Taylor, W Thompson, A Barron, J Dancer, H Cochrane
Ionians Tries Crockett 20, Smith 24, Bateman 46, Campbell 57
Cons Green 21, 26, 47, 58
Pens Green 12, 32, 37
Hartpury Tries Shaw 2, Harrison 15, 28, Forrester 39
Cons G Thompson 16, 29, 40
Pens G Thompson 42, 54
Referee G Holsgrove