HENLEY HAWKS were under no illusions about the task that they faced away at Priory Lane in the first game of 2014 against second in the league Rosslyn Park, writes Noel Armstead.
The difficulties they had in playing one of the strongest teams in the league were increased by the weather conditions. A heavy sodden pitch favoured the big Park pack and although there was respite from the rain during game time the Hawks could not use their favoured open game in such conditions.
The teams had drawn 6-6 in their previous meeting at Dry Leas back in September but under the conditions for this game the Hawks could not match the strength of the Park pack which was the best they had met to date.
The Hawks found it hard to get a base for their attacking game. The line-outs were dominated by the big Park pack and such was the size of their replacements that this did not alter the advantage the home side had when they were used in the closing stages of the game.
The set scrums, which for most of the season have been one of the Hawks’ strengths, were under pressure and Robbie Stapley at number eight and his colleagues in the back row did well to retain possession whilst on the retreat.
Despite the absence of good possession the Hawks did try to make the most of what they had to get their backs moving in the early stages of the game. However, their forays were frustrated by the resolute, relentless tackling of the home side throughout the game. In addition they spoiled ruthlessly when the Hawks were on the attack without committing fouls in the eyes of referee Fergus Kirby.
In contrast the Hawks conceded a number of offences which led to fly-half Scott Sneddon kicking penalty goals from in front of the posts on two occasions after four and 24 minutes to put the hosts 6-0 ahead.
Whilst the Hawks did get into their best attacking position midway through the half with forwards combining to put prop Alec Penny on a bursting run, they were put back on their heels after 24 minutes. When taking a line out ball on half way scrum-half Jack Gash burst through from the back of the line and after 25 metres gave centre Henry Staff a scoring pass. The conversion by Sneddon from in front of the posts gave Park a 13-0 lead.
The Hawks quickly retaliated through the reliable boot of James Comben who converted two penalties in the 27th and 34th minutes, putting the home side under pressure despite being without flanker Ryan Long who had been sent to the sin bin for killing the ball in what referee Fergus Kirby described as the red zone in the Hawks’ 22.
The Hawks kept themselves in the game and established themselves in the Park’s territory through some well placed kicks out of defence mainly by Comben, but they could not break the stern tackling of Rosslyn Park with ball in hand.
Within 10 minutes Park wing Davis Vincent was also sent to the same destination but for a foul slap. The home side were not disadvantaged for long as on the brink of half-time Sneddon put his side further ahead to 16-6 with his third penalty.
The Hawks enjoyed their best period of the game in the first 10 minutes of the second half when their forwards for the first time put the opposition on the back foot making progress from a line-out when Josh McNally stole a Park throw-in and by use of quick throws to the front of the line. They had their best backs movement when tidy possession from a line-out created the chance of an overlap down but the last pass went to ground.
It was Park who scored to stretch their lead to 23-6 in the 54th minute when again scrum-half Gash stole away from a line-out. Despite being put into touch by a good covering tackle by skipper Martin Nutt after 40 metres Park regained possession for Sam Shires, at number eight to crash over for a converted try.
Thereafter the most open play of the game developed with both sides willing to play running rugby.
The Hawks were troubled by injuries after 25 minutes when Tom Allen had to leave the field after a big collision in a tackle. This brought Simon Perry on to the wing.
Comben played on hobbling with a leg injury and after at first moving to fullback left the field with 10 minutes to play. Ed Yarnton moved to fly-half and showed the experience he had in that position whilst playing at Blaydon had not deserted him.
With the Hawks now down to 14 men, all their replacements having been called upon, they defended well until the dying seconds of the game when one of Park’s hefty replacements, Tom Baldwin, forced his way over to make the score 28-6.
Henley Hawks: Ed Yarnton, 14 Christoph Bart, 13 Martin Nutt, 12 Tom Allen (Simon Perry, 65 mins), 11 Liam O’Neill, 10 James Comben, 9 Luke Carter, 1 Dai Maddocks, 2 Liam Dwyer, 3 Alex Penny (Jim Hadfield, 65 mins), 4 Will Woodward (Ant Brennan, 48 mins), 5 Josh McNally (Connor Stapley, 69 mins), 6 Luke Allen, 7 Ryan Long (Ryan Newman, 48 mins), 8 Robbie Stapley.