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After a frustrating fortnight without a game the Pirates signed off for 2022 with only a losing bonus point to show for their efforts, as they fell to a disappointing defeat against Hartpury at the Alpas Arena.
Having missed the opportunity to bounce back from a disappointing loss against Caldy with last week’s cancellation against Doncaster, the Pirates were in a determined mood under the Friday night lights in Gloucestershire but it was not to be.
The Pirates welcomed back Robin Wedlake and Alex Schwarz from injury coming into the game, as Tom Kessell and Seb Nagle-Taylor returned to the starting XV. A late alteration saw Arwel Robson miss out through illness, with Harry Bazalgette stepping in at fly half and Carwyn Penny taking his place on the bench.
In truth, it couldn’t have started much worse for the Pirates. An opening minute penalty gave the home side the territory they needed to launch a first attack of the game and winger Brad Denty made no mistake from first phase. James Williams, recalled from Bristol Bears, converted and Pirates had a seven point head start to make up from the off.
Had it not been for some stoic visiting defence, that lead could have been extended on several occasions. The Pirates struggled to get a foothold in the game in the first quarter, but after that the tide did begin to turn. There was little reward in attack, but endeavour aplenty in defence until a moment of good fortune that has been all too unfamiliar this season.
John Stevens kick up field left Tommy Matthews isolated and a super chase from Seb Nagle-Taylor and thunderous hit put Williams under enough pressure that he was charged down by AJ Cant, who successfully got to the ball in time. Bazalgette levelled it up as the teams went into the sheds.
The unrelenting pressure from the home side that was a feature of the first half, was back in abundance for the second 40 and it took just 30 seconds for Hartpury to get into another dangerous position from a penalty. If that was a familiar story, so to was the rear-guard action from the visitors who survived yet again to hold Hartpury up over the line.
In terms of a pattern in the game, it was perhaps a surprise to see the Pirates take the lead just a few minutes later. The visitors trapped Hartpury deep in their own half to win a kickable penalty and Bazlagette made no mistake. Any hopes the Pirates had of pulling further away though, were soon dashed by a quick thinking score from the men in red.
Man of the Match Sam Lewis spotted some space in a Pirates defence that had been so good all game and his line break created a two on one that scrum half Matty Jones simply couldn’t miss. Tommy Matthews didn’t miss either and the Pirates trailed 14-10.
While it wasn’t an attacking rugby exhibition, there was certainly and end to end feel to this content in the second forty. As the rain continued to teem down the Pirates were presented with another opportunity from the tee, to reduce the arrears to a single point. Bazalgette obliged and the next score felt important.
Momentum is such a big factor in rugby and while it ebbed and flowed throughout for both sides, it was the home side who wrestled it back for the crucial stages of the game. The impressive Hartpury driving maul yielded successive penalties on the Pirates line and while it remained fifteen against fifteen for the time being, Luke Stratford did enough to extend the home lead to six points. Matthews missed the conversion, but was presented with an immediate opportunity to make amends and did so with a crucial penalty goal that made it a two score game.
The Pirates endeavour deserved something and Bazalgette’s third penalty did give them that at least that, when he made it 22-16 with three minutes remaining with a third penalty goal of the evening. Any brief thoughts of the unlikeliest of comebacks were distinguished though, as Alex Schwarz saw yellow in the dying moments and while the Pirates launched one final attack, a lost ball spelt the end and drew 2022 to a close in losing fashion.
Speaking after the game, joint head coach Gavin Cattle gave an honest appraisal of the defeat:
Hartpury fully deserved their win. They got the edge on us in the set piece in the second half in difficult conditions in the second half and it was hard for both teams to get a grip of the game. The positives for me would be some really good defensive sets and the work ons probably our ball retention, as we got turned over on the floor a few times.
We did stay in the arm wrestle and I thought Harry Bazalgette controlled the game really well and gave us good field position from his kicks from hand as well as kicking his penalties. Like I say I think Hartpury had the edge on us in the set piece and that accumulative pressure gave them the edge in the end.