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Playing this important ‘home’ tie ‘away’ in the British & Irish Cup, which followed an announcement on Friday that the ground at the Mennaye Field was unlikely to be playable, the Cornish Pirates displayed wholly admirable stoicism to qualify for the quarter-finals stage.
For this rescheduled final Pool 5 encounter, which had initially been postponed two weeks earlier, lock Chris Morgan was the named skipper, whilst included on the bench were fit again returnees Tom Cowan-Dickie and Matt Evans.
On a cold and breezy late afternoon at Hartpury’s Gillman’s Ground – the kick-off was at 4pm – conditions were at least very good, and especially so when considering that this game was the third match to be played there in just four days.
The Pirates travelled, of course, in the knowledge that they needed a bonus point win to proceed in the competition, so losing prop Jack Andrew with an apparent face injury early on was a little worrying.
Hartpury’s side was a strong one, including former Bristol and Newcastle Falcons centre Luke Eves, son of Derek. Along with colleagues he showed the danger posed, however it was the fully focused Pirates who overall looked the most purposeful.
Approaching midway through the first half it was time for the visitors to open the scoring, and they did. The pack rumbled close to the opposition line and signalled a penalty the opportunity was taken to suddenly get the ball wide. Wing Alex O’Meara, a former Hartpury student, did the honours to score the game’s opening try but fly-half Will Cargill’s conversion attempt narrowly missed.
The Pirates continued to dominate and on the half-hour mark would score again. Full-back Kyle Moyle made the initial thrust and following a telling burst from flanker Alex Cheesman it was scrum-half Alex Day who crossed for a second unconverted try.
A set back for the hosts saw them lose the services of their Plymouth-born skipper, former Wales back-rower Rhys Oakley, before the break – which arrived with Pirates looking ‘good value’ for their 10-0 lead.
At the start of the second half it was Day who went close to scoring once more, with hooker Sam Matavesi again showing what a threat he can pose with ball in hand.
It was a little too early to be fully confident that the Pirates would deliver the win sought, however after No. 8 Tom Duncan scored a converted try number three, and the lively Day then deservedly notched the bonus point score, tensions were undoubtedly easing.
With an hour on the clock, feelings of relief heightened to elation, when wing Nic Coronel powered over. Cargill’s conversion made it 29-0 but there was better yet to come. It was also a time for the Pirates to empty their bench, with another ex-Hartpury man in Matt Evans making an immediate impact.
As the game approached its conclusion, with sweeping raindrops glistening in the floodlights, the Pirates crossed Hartpury’s line twice more. Replacement hooker Tom Cowan-Dickie wasted no time in scoring his seventh try of the season, converted now by Laurence May, and there was a second in the match for Duncan.
Having to switch the fixture to Hartpury under the instruction of the RFU had naturally been frustrating and disappointing for both the Pirates team and their supporters, but no better reaction could have been asked for.
Speaking after the game, co-coach Alan Paver commented:
We are over the moon with the performance, considering some of the mental torment we have been through as a side. Besides having to seek a bonus point win, the fixture reversal provided an extra challenge, but we found ourselves in the right place emotionally and it showed in our performance.
Against a decent side, in the first forty we played with a good mix of pragmatism and endeavour, so at half-time it was a case of just keeping the guys in the right frame of mind. Everyone contributed to the cause and it was great to see certain players involved who have been making their way back from injury.
As Graham Dawe once told me, ‘One snow flake doesn’t make a winter’, but our performance today was a little bit special. To get to the quarter-final it means so much to the club and our supporters – and we really did it the hard way!