The optimism of a bright spring day and third place in the Championship table evaporated into a bitterly disappointing 80 minutes of rugby for Jersey Reds.
The home side ran up against a determined Hartpury side who had changed significantly in both personnel and defensive acumen since sustaining a crushing home defeat at Jersey hands in October. The game looked set to be a draw after both sides were locked together at 7-7 for more than an hour's play, but visiting fly-half Sam Leeming won it with a late penalty, earning his side crucial points in their battle to avoid relegation.
The Reds had the perfect start when skipper Jerry Sexton, making his 50th competitive appearance - alongside team-mate Roy Godfrey - intercepted a pass in midfield and cantered 40 metres to the line, giving Brett Herron an easy conversion to make it 7-0.
The visitors took just five minutes to respond, with a brace of penalties enabling them to gain a chance through an attacking lineout in the Bowl corner. The maul had momentum almost as soon as possession was secured, and captain Simon Linsell emulated his counterpart by crashing over, with Leeming converting.
The Reds had several opportunities to add to their points tally, but these were squandered during a scrappy match in which 26 penalties were awarded - an average of one every three minutes of play - with failure to release the ball after being tackled the most frequently whistled offence.
Within two minutes of the restart, Jersey were down to 14 players after centre Apakuki Ma'afu was sin-binned for a high tackle on his opposite number Charlie Powell. The first opportunity for points came when Brett Herron went for goal from a penalty, but his 45-metre kick bounced back from an upright.
Both sides had chances to score but ran into determined defence, but when Herron departed with an ankle injury, his replacement Aaron Penberthy had a chance to emulate his match-winning efforts from two weeks ago against Cornish Pirates. He signalled for posts for a penalty from the touchline, but his 40-metres kick drifted wide.
Eventually, with normal time having expired, the Reds were penalised in front of their posts for not rolling away and Leeming kept his nerve to land the crucial kick. There was still time for a late Jersey rally, with Penberthy finding an excellent long-range touch from a penalty, having turned down a shot at goal that could have achieved a draw but would only have gained his side one extra point. Possession was secured, but after several phases had brought the Reds within touching distance of the try-line - especially one thrust by Kyle Hatherell - James Newey's knock-on close to the Hartpury line ended home hopes of stealing the win.
"It was a very frustrating afternoon for us, both because of the way the game was officiated and because we couldn't execute our basic skills," said Jersey director of rugby Harvey Biljon.
Hartpury director of rugby John Barnes was ecstatic to see his players get their first away win of the season at the ninth attempt.
"We've really focused on our defence and that hard work has paid off - we have become a really hard team to score against," he said. "We've lost games at the very end, and had kicks that haven't gone over, so fair play to the boys for their efforts."
JERSEY REDS: Van Dam; Marx, Ma'afu (YC 42), Best, Newey; Herron (Penberthy 58), Homer (Howley 49); Godfrey (Morley 58), Maddison (Macfarlane 49), Atalifo (Rodman 60), Sexton (c), Beckett (Hallam-Eames 68), Hatherell, Bartle (Joyce 41), Venter.
HARTPURY: Wilcox; Foley, Powell (Reeves 72), Tovey, Seabrook; Leeming, Cochrane (Chapman 58); Murphy (Merrey 68), Tanner (Stratford 68), Harden (Gibson 62), Craig (Ehizode 73), Linsell (c), Dodd, Qera (Langley 62), Graham.
REFEREE: Andrew Jackson. Assistants: Simon Park, Nigel Carrick
Half Time: 7-7
Man-of-the-match (as chosen by match sponsor UBS): Harry Cochrane (Hartpury)
Try: Sexton 5
Conversion: Herron 5
Try: Linsell 10
Conversion: Leeming 10
Penalty: Leeming 74
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