Haywards Heath 41 – Ashford 5
Ashford made the long trip to Haywards Heath on Saturday knowing that they would face a stern test from a Heath side who had won 3 of their 4 league games, and looked on the face of it likely to be early season contenders for a promotion push. Ashford not for the first time this season had their playing resources stretched by injury and unavailability, although talking to the Heath management before the game it was pleasing to learn they faced the same challenges, having like Ashford fielded 30 different players so far this season. With Captain Fussell nursing an injury, Dan Brown led the side for the first time and did an excellent job, Ashford welcomed back Paul Curry after a 2 year absence, John Norman fresh from lunch also made what is fast becoming his Annual 1st XV appearance, and Nathan Hamilton made a first appearance of the season on the bench.
Ashford this season have started games brightly and Saturday was no exception. They soaked up a little early pressure from Heath before seizing on their mistakes and made their way up the sloping pitch. As the Ashford pack bombarded the line it was eventual Man of the Match Dan Sherrin, who crossed the line for a well-earned early try, Steve Tanner just missed with his conversion attempt.
The remainder of the first half was an exercise in set piece dominance and poor handling from the home side and resilient defence from the Ashford side led by amongst others Shaun Woolford who twice turned over possession at the breakdown. The Haywards Heath pack were to a man significantly larger than the Ashford lads, this additional power meant they dominated the scrum and line out areas, and whilst their fly half may have lacked in fitness he controlled the game very well by always putting his pack on the front foot. He scored their first try to level the scores, but it was late into the half before the home sides dominance finally told and they scored 2 additional tries and a penalty kick to take the score to 20 – 5. By this point the referee had given out a yellow card to each side and was clearly not in the mood to tolerate any further indiscipline, although it must be said that he was starting to make a number of interesting decisions against both teams. Ashford were forced into changes at half time as 2/3 of the front row had sustained injuries and would play no further part.
The second half followed a similar pattern to the first with Heath dominating set piece and pushing Ashford easily off every scrum resulting in a number of penalties, this in turn resulted in numerous line outs which again were the chance for Heath to exert their power game on the Ashford pack. Ashford though defended and played with huge credit in the second half, the youthful energy and physicality of Sherrin, Ticehurst and Richards in particular meant that in the loose and at the breakdown Ashford were competing well and this bodes well for the battles to come. Ashford were actually unlucky not to score the first points of the second half after a period of sustained pressure led to the ball coming out wide and it was only a deliberate knock on which prevented the try being scored. What should have been at the very least a penalty was instead deemed to be a scrum and the advantage was lost. Ashford remained unperturbed by the decision and the lively Jack Weaver was a constant threat bringing the forwards and backs into play as they threatened the line once more, Heath though held strong and this was to be the last real foray into the home sides half.
The home side rang the changes and replaced one behemoth 2nd row with another, this firepower finally broke the determined Ashford team as they conceded 3 converted tries in the last 20 minutes all through their forwards. Whilst the score line may have flattered the home side slightly it was a fair result and in reality it was sheer size and power which gave them the win and no doubt will give them the platform to challenge for the league this season. Ashford played some great rugby in spells, looked sharper than they have done in the backs so far this season and didn’t leave down heartened after the game. In what is a season focused on stability in the 1st XV and across the senior rugby set up, they know they will face the odd side who are more developed as a club and team and this was one of those occasions.
Ashford unfortunately lost Steve Tanner to a nasty looking injury which may keep him out a few weeks and certainly had a number of players hobbling by the end. The break in the league campaign this weekend is certainly needed before the arrival of Aylesford on the 22nd for what promises to be a huge game.