Big home pack end Heathfield's Vase saga
Wind and rain - and then at half time.......
Withycombe 24 Heathfield 5
Withycombe were the deserved winners of this National Semi Final in the RFU Senior Vase Cup competition in front a crowd of several hundred. The majority were inevitably home supporters but there was an impressive turnout of Heathfield support with at least thirty present, some of whom had overcome the dire traffic on the previous day. As many teams over the years have discovered it is not easy to achieve a result ‘down west’ on Easter weekend especially when the elements are against you. Withycombe probably had a team better suited to the prevailing conditions and they certainly exploited them well.
This report will be lighter in detail than some since for at least the first half the game was played in a stiff breeze with persistent and at times heavy rain which reduced any notes about the match to pulp. Heathfield chose to play down the slight slope and into the wind. The pitch was firm underneath but greasy and muddy on top so by half time it was becoming difficult to tell the sides apart, and speedy, skilful running was difficult to achieve which did not play to Heathfield strengths.
Much of the half was at the Heathfield end as the home side kicked well out of hand to achieve good field position. They missed two kickable penalty chances and the Heathfield defence was generally looking to be well in control albeit under pressure.
Going into the game Heathfield had felt that their scrummage was in good shape but were concerned about their lineout. In the event the reverse applied as Heathfield clearly had the better at the lineout with Henry Ross, David Bayly and Ed Koops all having good games in this phase both on their own ball and in disrupting the home lineouts.
However the home scrummage, of which they are rightly proud, was probably the key influence on the outcome as they exerted pressure which prevented Heathfield from getting on the front foot. Withycombe were only awarded two penalties at the scrum, albeit one for a penalty try, so the Heathfield scrummage held things together well in difficult circumstances and Oli Robertshaw at No 8 did some decent work in securing retreating ball. The home second row outweighed their opponents not only in years but also in pounds by a significant margin and this was probably a big factor in pressuring the visitors’ scrum. But Koops and Ross have time on their side – their combined years are less than the age of one of the opposing second row today.
Just before the half hour Withycombe finally took the lead with a penalty (3-0) but this merely served to initiate a better Heathfield period as the pack repeatedly drove forward in the loose, making useful yards. Shortly before half time a good position was achieved five yards out and it was finally decided to move the ball wide but the home defence was up quickly and the chance was gone.
With the benefit of the wind advantage to come and the pack going well outside the scrummage, Heathfield will have felt that a result was possible. However the game changed decisively in the first few minutes of the half as Withycombe pressed into the Heathfield 22 and then a couple of visitor errors under pressure gave them a scrum. The home pack are a seasoned unit which recognised the opportunity and duly surged forward to claim a penalty try (10-0).
About now it became apparent that the home team also had the weather on their side as the rain generally ceased and the earlier strong breeze gradually faded away.
However Heathfield were certainly not daunted and again exerted pressure in the home half. A penalty chance drifted wide but the visitors were generally on the front foot and anything looked possible. Ben Boorman made one impressive catch of a ball under pressure in a tight spot although he was just unable to exploit it. Some good team work also saw a precise chip by Harry Reilly establish a good position in the left hand corner but the defence was eventually able to boot the ball back downfield.
Towards the end of the third quarter the game was effectively decided as Heathfield continued to try to play open rugby, but in difficult handling conditions and under pressure, a home centre was able to intercept and romp home to naturally noisy home delight (17-0).
Heathfield responded by making a raft of replacements with Richard Cooley, Lewis Headland and Tom Glenn joining the fray. This soon produced positive results as in scrambling play Heathfield charged into the left hand corner and Ollie Brown was on hand to touch down (17-5).
However Withycombe soon replied as while Heathfield initially contained another threatening 5 metre scrummage, they were unable to stop the subsequent drive in midfield (24-5)
The result was now clear but Heathfield were still trying to play and were generally in the home half leading to two Withycombe yellow cards in the dying minutes. Headland caught the eye with a couple of penetrating runs but it was all too late.
Withycombe have suffered disappointment at this stage of the competition before so they were naturally and justifiably delighted to have secured their place in the final at Twickenham. The two clubs have much in common, not only in having very similar playing strips, but also in their attitude to the game plus both having chances for promotion in the remaining weeks of the season.
Heathfield will be very disappointed to have fallen short on this occasion. Head Coach Dave Cook felt that some of the execution, especially in the first half, had been below the standard that he hopes to achieve. However this was a tough game in adverse conditions a long way from home, not helped by a seven hour coach journey the previous day. There were some suggestions that Heathfield had tried to play too much rugby when more limited tactics would have been appropriate but it may well be that on this occasion the home team just had too much going for them whatever was tried.
One big positive for Heathfield on the day was that there were four current Colts in their side and the team average age of 24 illustrates the youthful potential of this team which will continue to develop.
Next Saturday Heathfield return to league duty in another important game when they visit league leaders Bromley in a game which will have a critical impact on promotion for both clubs. No pressure there then. Coach Cook will be keen to move the team on from the disappointment in Devon to look to the arguably more important league contest.