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. 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 had a tremendous game at Henley in September which ended in a six all draw. Under the conditions for this game the Hawks could not match the strength of the Park pack which was certainly 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 No.8 and his colleagues in the back row did marvellously well to still 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 with out 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 Park 6-0 in the lead.
Whilst the Hawks did get into their best positive attacking position mid way through the half with forwards combining to put prop Alec Penny on a typical bursting run they were put back on their heels after 24 minutes when in 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 penalties putting the home side under pressure despite being without flanker Ryan Long who had been sent to the sin bin rather harshly 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 the Rosslyn Park with ball in hand. Within ten minutes Park wing Davis Vincent was also sent to the same destination but for a foul slap. However 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 ten minutes or so 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 again tidy possession from a line out created the chance of an overlap down but 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 quickly regained possession for Sam Shires, at No. 8 to crash over for a converted try.
There after 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 onto the wing. Comben played on hobbling with a leg injury and after at first moving to full back left the field with ten minutes to play. Ed Yarnton moved to fly-half and showed the experience he had 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.
The Hawks never conceding an inch, willingly, to an impressive Rosslyn Park side that showed that they are probably the best team in the league.
15. Ed Yarnton, 14. Christophe Bart, 13. Marin Nutt (Capt.), 12. Tom Allen (Simon Perry 65), 11. Liam O’Neill, 10. James Comben, 9. Luke Carter, 1. Dai Maddcks, 2. Liam Dwyer, 3. Alec Penny (Jim Hadfield 65), 4. Will Woodward (Ant Brennan 48), 5 Josh McNally (Conner Stapley 69), 6. Luke Allen, 7. Ryan Long (Ryan Newman 48), 8. Robbie Stapley.