A LARGE crowd saw Henley Hawks come out on top against joint league leaders Hartpury College at Dry Leas last Saturday in a match that ebbed and flowed and was not decided until injury time.
This was a game decided by the never say die motivation of the Hawks team. As in most games this season they finished the stronger of the two sides.
There was no sign of the running rugby which has led the Hawks to scoring 85 tries this season. Both sides were resolute in defence and there were few breaks although Xavier Andre had one or two exciting runs down the left early on.
Hartpury took the lead with a penalty by Luke Cozens in the first minute for offside at the kick-off.
In the early stages of the game referee Shane Lewis had a downer on Hawks’ ruck play whilst allowing Hartpury to push early in the set scrums. Nevertheless, it was the Hawks forwards who gained the advantage when pressure on the Hartpury line resulted in Robbie Stapley using his strength to finish off a Hawks drive, which with James Comben’s conversion put the Hawks 7-3 ahead.
For the rest of the half the scoring was of a ding-dong nature with each side coming back with a score so that the lead changed hands four times in the first 40 minutes.
Hartpury were next to score when scrum half Bradley Field sneaked over from a ruck five metres out which Cozens converted to put the visitors 10-7 up.
The Hawks forwards were not being dominated by the visitors and when they took play to Hartpury they turned a line out to their advantage by driving forward and flanker Ryan Newman smuggled his way over the line to make the score 12-10.
A Cozens unsuccessful penalty prevented Hartpury achieving a half-time lead, Comben having given the Hawks a 15-13 advantage when he kicked his second penalty after 33 minutes.
It was clear that Hartpury decided to concentrate on driving to the Hawks’ line through their experienced heavyweight after the break, as they had not made any breaks against a resolute Hawks defence through their backs and the kicking of Cozens, despite the last-minute inclusion of leading try scorer wing Ian Clark in a change before the game.
Hartpury rumbled away for 10 minutes before a catch and drive from a five-metre line-out led to skipper Chris Fortey touching down. Cozens converted to make the score 20-15.
This spurred the Hawks on. They had not used their backs to run the ball back as they had done for most of the season, but kicked for position and were inaccurate to a degree and were now using the pack with the influential Matt Payne leading the way to pin Hartpury in their own half. This tactic paid off as the older parts of the College eight began to tire.
Hemmed in on their own five-metre line they gave away four penalties in the space of 10 minutes and although referee Lewis showed patience in not awarding a penalty try he eventually sent Hartpury’s skipper Fortey off with a yellow card. As the pressure told prop Darren Crompton was replaced and the Hawks responded by bringing on the fresh legs of prop Jim Hadfield.
They then pressed home the advantage of an extra man and a driving surge enabled number eight Robbie Stapley to make the hard yards once more to touch down his second try of the game.
There was an eerie silence as Comben lined up a conversion to win the game. His place kicking had already brought success in two attempts out of three and he coolly found the middle of the uprights to a huge cheer from the Henley supporters.
There were still four further minutes of injury time to play. Hartpury now had the substantial figure of Tim Stevenson at fly half who began to use the backs to counterattack.
The tension mounted when he put in an accurate kick to the right wing which was collected by Stephan Reynolds who, although tackled by Hawks’ Richard Briggs, was judged to have done so off his feet by assistant referee Alan Biggs. This kick had to be taken close to touch by Stevenson. There was a huge sigh of relief as the kick was driven wide.
Henley Hawks: 15 Neil Baggett, 14 Andre Xavier, 13 Tom Allen, 12 Danny Wells, 11 Richard Briggs, 10 James Comben, 9 Luke Carter (Jack Shaylor, 71 mins), 1 Hugo Milford Scott (Jim Hadfield, 79 mins), 2 Liam Dwyer, 3 Dave Manning, 4 Dave Clements (James Winterbottom, 71 mins), 5 Josh McNally, 6 Matt Payne, 7 Andy Newman 8, Robbie Stapley.