THERE was little to choose between the Hawks and Esher last Saturday on a wet, windy afternoon. This was despite the fact that Esher are riding high in fourth place in National Division 1 whilst the Hawks are 10th.
The Hawks have a reputation of rising to the occasion when they meet the top sides in the league at Dry Leas having narrowly defeated league leaders Doncaster Knights 11-10 and drawn 6-6 with Rosslyn Park who lie second.
On this occasion, although they scored a try a piece, the visitors edged in front thanks to the place kicking of fullback Luke Daniels who converted the try and slotted home two straightforward penalties in difficult kicking conditions due to a capricious wind.
The Hawks faced the wind in the first half playing away from the Tiger Turf enclosure but found after the changeover at half-time they still had the wind in their faces. This was a contributory factor, although James Comben missed a straightforward conversion of Penny’s try which would have equalled the scores at 8-8 after 42 minutes. Comben and Daniels had exchanged penalties in the first 15 minutes of the game.
The Esher pack turned a useful equilibrium in the set scrums in the first half into a definite advantage in the second. The Hawks suffered from giving away twice as many penalties and felt that the visitors’ play on the ground was tolerated beyond reasonable doubt.
The Hawks started the second half with a determination that they had not shown in the first half and good handling by backs and forwards created opportunities to score and this came when a powerful drive by the pack saw Alec Penny, touching down close to an upright. The Hawks had threatened the Esher defence in the first half on occasions with a determined incisive run by Tom Allen and new fullback Ed Yarnton, who made an impressive debut, taking the ball up on collecting Esher clearance kicks.
Hawks attacks throughout the game were thwarted by handling mistakes and an inability to retain possession to press home attacks.
These errors were partly due to the desire to play a style of game more suited to dry occasions with long passes from midfield to wings which in the windy conditions were difficult to control. In contrast Esher’s handling relying on much shorter distribution based on thrusts by back row forwards meant that errors were very few.
This attacking formula paid off midway in the first half when number eight Michael McFarlane burst through to score a try close to the posts which with Daniel’s conversion moved the score to 10-3.
Penny’s try made the score 10-8, the prelude to which was a 40 metres burst down the left by Robbie Stapley.
The Hawks kept well in the game in the second and the back row of Rob Stapley, Luke Allen and Ryan Long had much to do with this.
The best chance the Hawks had of turning the game came when a tapped penalty by Luke Carter following the award of free kick was taken up by the back row and this went deep into the Esher 22 where Comben twisted and turned in towards the post but was firmly stopped.
The conclusion of the match was a scrambling non-cohesive affair with neither side able to establish sufficient authority to command the game.
Esher came close to denying the Hawks a bonus point when some aggressive running and handling down the right ended when wing Spencer Sutherland lost control of the ball in attempting to cross for a try near the touch. This would have been rough justice on a Henley side which lost two further players, Ryan Long and Xavier Andre due to injury.
The Hawks have a tough start in the New Year. They are away at Rosslyn Park on January 4 and face Coventry at home on January 11. Points are needed from these games if they are to hang on to 10th place in the league which they have maintained despite losing their last three games.
Henley Hawks: 15 Ed Yarnton, 14 Liam O’Neill, 13 Martin Nutt, 12 Tom Allen, 11 Xavier Andre (Simon Perry, 44 mins), 10 James Comben, 9 Luke Carter, 1 Ruairi McLeod (Dai Maddocks, 49 mins), 2 Liam Dwyer, 3 Alec Penny, 4 Will Woodward, 5 Josh McNally (Connor Stapley, 58 mins), 6 Luke Allen, 7 Ryan Long (Tom Haynes, 61 mins), 8 Robbie Stapley.