Coventry RFC 21 – Hartpury College 23
Visiting Coventry under any circumstances is a tough away trip but, with the home side having racked up 13 tries in their two opening fixtures, this looked like an overwhelming task.
Add to this the fact that a late player arrival threw pre-match plans into disarray, with late re-shuffles needed, and Hartpury’s against-the-odds victory yesterday looks even more miraculous.
In fact, it came as a result of one of the most resolute and mature performances that the college can have put together during their relatively short history.
Over the years we have become used to watching a free-scoring and creative side, whereas as Saturday’s victory, whilst containing two very good tries, was built around a powerful scrum, obdurate defence and a bloody-minded refusal to give an inch.
Not that Coventry were without their chances to win. In an uncanny mirror-image of last season’s fixture, the home side were chasing the game until a penalty kick right on the final whistle. This time it was Matt Jones who pulled his kick wide of the left-hand upright, rather than Cliffie Hodgson who had left the action early with a recurrent injury.
However, for much of the game and despite all of their possession, Coventry were reduced to either moving the ball laterally, where they were knocked down by the Hartpury tacklers, or kicking long, a tactic that was largely dealt with by the visiting back three and often returned ‘with interest’ from the boots of Thompson and Perry.
It could have gone so wrong for Hartpury after a start that was close to calamitous. Hooker Will Tanner was late to the ground due to traffic, meaning that flanker James Stephenson, the hooking alternative, was shifted to the front row.
Steve Pape, missing last week and expecting a shortened shift off the bench, was started at lock and Tom MacDonald moved into the back row, to give Hartpury a starting pack with no recognisable open-side. Tanner duly took a seat with the replacements.
Coventry, meanwhile, started well. They were onto the attack right from the kick off and less than two minutes had passed when, after consulting with his assistant, referee Davies awarded the first try to Dom Lespierre.
Lesser teams might have decided that it wasn’t going to be their day. Instead, Hartpury quickly rallied and within six minutes had the lead. First, Thompson nailed his first successful kick of the day. Moments later, Steve Leonard made a trademark break from deep in his own 22 and was not stopped until he had reached the Coventry danger zone.
George Boulton provided the continuity and, when the ball was quickly recycled, Jacob Perry was quick to see a massive mismatch to his right. Lock James Voss was ideally placed to take his pass and dive over, Thompson converting for a 10-5 lead.
After this the pattern of the game was established, with Coventry enjoying plenty of ball but rarely threatening, whilst Hartpury tackled everything and looked capable of damaging break-outs. On the occasions when Jones did build pressure by kicking penalties to the corner, Hartpury were good enough to spoil the Coventry line-out.
Powerful centre Rob Knox just about got over the line on the half-hour and, as half-time approached, a successful kick at goal from Jones edged Coventry back in front. As if stung by this, Hartpury launched another attack and got their reward before the break.
Recycling the ball after a Mikalcius surge, Hartpury found Voss on the left. His powerful run was eventually stopped but quick ball again allowed Perry and Leonard to move it right before flanker Jake Polledri, having another good game, picked a nice angle to flat-foot the defence and score under the posts.
The second half followed much the same pattern, although it was noticeable by now that Coventry were beginning to find life difficult at scrum time. Fresh props, in the form of debutant Josh McNulty and former England Under-18 man Alfie Barron, took full advantage.
Several times Coventry were penalised at the set-piece, frequently surrendering attacking positions and, more importantly for the visitors, allowing Gareth Thompson to land two sweetly-struck long-range penalties to keep Hartpury just in front.
Coventry did amass two further scores, a catch and drive for Price during a Pape yellow card, followed by a simple Jones penalty, but two late misses, including the dramatic final kick, sealed their fate.
Discipline, not always Hartpury’s strength, has been better this season so far and this uncompromising attitude, allied to an ability to get over the whitewash from time to time, should stand them in good stead for the weeks ahead.
Esher will visit the College next weekend, before the long trip north-east to Blaydon. It’s safe to assume that Will Tanner will be on the coach for that one!
(Picture: James Forrester and Alfie Barron combine top stop Coventry's Devlin Hope)
Coventry: 15 C Hodgson, 14 D Lespierre (Try 2), 13 C MacBurnie, 12 R Knox (Try 31), 11 S Baker, 10 M Jones (Pens 38, 73), 9 W Evans, 1 A Brown, 2 M Price (Try 53), 3 C Thorne, 4 T Poole, 5 C Roberts, 6 S Pailor, 7 G Oliver, 8 L Molitika
Bench: 16 D Hope, 17 T Sigley, 18 A Woodburn, C Ryan, H Lee-Everton
Hartpury: 15 G Thompson (Cons 6, 40; Pens 5, 57, 62), 14 J Mikalcius, 13 S Leonard, 12 G Boulton, 11 J Evans, 10 J Perry, 9 R Shaw, 1 M Flook, 2 J Stephenson, 3 W Thompson, 4 S Pape, 5 J Voss (Try 5), 6 J Polledri (Try 40), 7 T MacDonald, 8 W Safe
Bench: 16 A Barron, 17 J McNulty, 18 W Tanner, 19 J Dancer, 20 J Forrester
Referee: P Davies