In greasy conditions, it was Exeter who struck first, with a penalty from fly-half Harry Bazalgette after Hartpury strayed offside. Hartpury responded with a penalty of their own several minutes later to level the scores before the game was stopped in the 9th minute for an injury to hooker Harrison Fowke, who received an elbow to the face attempting to make a tackle. After a long stoppage, he was able to leave the field on foot, replaced by Ben Phillips. Straight from the restart, Hartpury crossed for their first of the evening, a well worked backs move down the blindside that resulted in their winger diving over. The successful conversion took Hartpury into a 10-3 lead after 10 minutes. In truth, Exeter struggled in the first half to unlock a resolute Hartpury defence, their best opportunity going begging in the 16th minute after a powerful bust from centre Joe Elderkin. After his initial carry, his offload found a supporting man who fed Relton to dart clear. However, the ball just evaded his grasp, eventually knocking on. It was Hartpury who displayed more composure in the red zone, with another penalty on 26 minutes extending their advantage to 10. Exeter finally got their try in the 31st minute thanks to a typically dominant driving maul from the pack, Ben Phillips the man to ground the ball. Bazalgette’s conversion pulled Exeter back to within 3 at 13-10. Despite this, is was Hartpury who had the last say in the half, after their hooker somehow found a gap on the blindside and cantered clear. His offload to Hartpury’s left winger was well-timed and allowed Hartpury to score in the corner. Despite the missed conversion, Hartpury went into the interval with an 18-10 advantage.
Any hopes Exeter had of coming out of the blocks quickly in the second half were dampened as Hartpury scored their third after 42 minutes, successfully taking a clever kick through that Exeter were unable to control and diving over, extending their lead to 13. Exeter had their opportunities though and may feel they ought to have scored just 5 minutes later as they were held up over the line twice in quick succession, first from prop forward Johnson and then number 8 Paul Schroter. Despite the strong field position, Exeter’s inability to take points from their visits to the 22 was a crucial factor, as a rip in contact allowed Hartpury to clear their lines. As Hartpury attempted to run from their own half, the referee stopped play for what was deemed to be a dangerous tackle from Bazalgette, who was shown a yellow card for the misdemeanour. From the penalty, Hartpury edged further ahead at 26-10. On 57 minutes, Exeter again almost found a way through, with a barrelling run from replacement tighthead Fin Richardson creating a hole in an otherwise stubborn Hartpury defence. After play was again stopped for an injury to second row Jamie Yates, Exeter struck back in the 59th minute, as the ball was bundled over from close range after some sterling work from the pack. Joe Elderkin, kicking in the absence of Bazalgette made no mistake with the extras, bringing the score back to 26-17. Exeter were now starting to find holes in the Hartpury defence, with the home side starting to give away more penalties as the pressure increased. After sustained pressure on the Hartpury line, Exeter’s attempts to further claw themselves back into the game were stunted after replacement Francesco Scardamaglia was penalised for crossing. On 70 minutes, Hartpury’s ill-discipline on their goal line caught up with them as they received a yellow card for killing the ball. From the quick-tap penalty, Yates’ replacement Tom Addison used his power to muscle over. Elderkin’s conversion pulled Exeter back to within 2 at 26-24. Any hopes of a successful comeback were diminished as, directly from the restart, Exeter knocked on, allowing Hartpury an attacking position which they duly made the most of, going through multiple phases with the pack, before shipping the ball wide to their winger to dot down in the corner, despite a last-ditch effort from winger Arthur Relton. The try gave Hartpury the 4-try bonus point but, crucially, the conversion slid wide, keeping Exeter within 7. In a frantic last few minutes, Hartpury eventually held onto the ball, drawing a penalty that allowed them to see out the game and secure the victory.
Despite the disappointment of a first defeat of the season, Exeter still picked up a bonus point and there were some positive signs, especially in the second-half where the strength of the pack began to be utilised more effectively, in the unforgiving fashion that saw teams put to the sword last season. Attention now turns to Wednesday 23rd at Sandy Park as we welcome Leeds Beckett for the North-South Double Header, hoping to avenge last season’s semi-final defeat at Topsham.