HENLEY Hawks boss Nigel Dudding remains confident his side can secure promotion this season despite a pre-Christmas downturn in form.
The Dry Leas outfit were quick out of the starting blocks by winning their first nine games in National Division 2 South.
However, their title challenge took a knock after they lost three out of their last five games, including defeats to promotion rivals Worthing and Redruth and a surprise loss to Dings Crusaders.
Last Saturday’s away match at Lydney was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch.
Head coach Dudding said he was disappointed with the Crusaders loss but insisted his focus had not changed.
He said: “There’s only two points separating the top four, which you could say is half a game’s worth.
“We’re in a better position than we were this time last year. Whilst we’re only fourth, we’re still very much in the hunt.” A breakaway group is currently forming the top four but Dudding believes it will become a three-horse race as Redruth fall away, citing their poor away form.
Despite recent setbacks, the Hawks maintained their 100 per cent home record with a 22-20 win against Hartpury College earlier this month.
At the beginning of the season, Dudding highlighted the Gloucestershire outfit as the key threat to his team’s promotion hopes this season.
He also set his side a target of being more consistent against inferior opposition.
Dudding said: “In the past few weeks, we’ve played three of the top four sides. We did well against Hartpury but not against Redruth and Worthing.
“Hartpury were pressing hard and hadn’t been beaten away from home all season but we were the first side to do that.
“Dings Crusaders was a big blow because of the way it was against a much lower side. It was a bit of a disappointment considering we were in control of the game.
“We had the right game plan and just made too many mistakes. It was handling errors that cost us.
“We made a mistake down there last year. It’s one of the difficult grounds to play at but we’re not making excuses.”
However, Dudding, who took charge of the Hawks in the summer after a previous spell in charge, believes his side is more resilient than the one that finished fifth last season.
He said: “We’re determined to put it right. I still maintain we’ve got a stronger squad but it’s made the job more difficult.
“If it means we’re going to have to rise to the challenge then so be it. It’s going to be tighter than we perhaps expected.
“We always think we’re the best side in the league but we’re mindful we can’t be overconfident and must respect every side we come up against.”
Henley were dealt a significant blow when Jack Shaylor damaged an anterior cruciate ligament against the Crusaders, side-lining him for the rest of the season.
Dudding said: “He’s been playing number nine and is a major part of the squad. We’ve had one or two niggling injuries that are bound to happen but we’re been reasonably fortunate until now.
“But if you are a side looking for promotion you’ve got to be able to handle it and we can.
“We’ve got a break over Christmas and our next game is at home to Southend, by which time we hope our longer-term injuries will have cleared up.”
The Hawks remain the top point scorers in the league this season with 588 points but Dudding believes this may be clouded by their early season achievements, in which they recorded score lines such as a 71-7 thrashing over Clifton. He said: “This season has been about developing an all-round game where we can attack from anywhere and one that we hope can be adaptable to all sorts of situations.
“We have a desire to make sure we play and keep the ball and want to develop a game based on high continuity.
“Whilst we’ve got the best attacking record this is mainly because of our early season performances where we were beating everyone by huge score lines. Since we’ve come up against tougher sides we’ve needed to adapt better.”
Dudding said cutting out the type of errors that were on display against the Crusaders is now a priority as his side prepares to enter the second half of the campaign.
“Turnovers have been killing us for a few weeks now and we need to stop them as well as tighten up the scrums. We need to make sure we can perform against the better sides.”
Should Henley secure promotion, Dudding said he has no doubt his team will be a match for any side in National Division 1. “We would have to strengthen certain areas but we’ve always said with this lot we’re trying to put together a National Division 1 side.
“We’ve got to prove that first of all but there’s no doubt we’ve got the players to cope with that.”