Ashfield Rugby Club’s 10-game unbeaten sequence ended on the Belper turf with a 24-11 defeat last weekend.
Their high-tempo start belied what lay ahead and this was a disappointing performance by the in-form team of the division, who showed little confidence or belief in what had been achieved over the past three months. With two players unavailable, James Kirk returning and two positional changes to the starting XV, these looked to have no effect on the team as the game got underway.
The bright start by the Ashfield forwards saw metres gained in several phases of play and, with Belper hard-pushed to contain the sustained pressure, Belper conceded a penalty that was in reach of place kicker, Gareth Purnell. But 23m out and from a central position, Purnell dragged his kick to the left of the upright.
Instead of taking heart from this near miss it only served to galvanise Belper.
Missed tackles by the Ashfield backs, that would be a major factor in this game, undermined the great defence work by Tyler Morgan, previously a strength in recent weeks, and only allowed Belper to charge forward deep into the Ashfield half. Ashfield struggled to contain the home side and gave away a penalty that was dispatched with ease by the Belper fly half.
Fearing this would open the floodgates, Ashfield bounced back again, Gareth Jones, Dan and Scott Chapman taking the fight deep into the Belper half. A lack of discipline by Belper’s defence gave a second opportunity to Gareth Purnell, and this time he wasn’t to be denied and the game was all square at three points each.
The game them ebbed and flowed with neither side taking control until Belper’s Tom Matthews crossed the try line to score. The try was converted to give Belper a seven-point lead. Back came Ashfield and again the home side’s defence was stretched and conceded a third penalty after good work by forward Chris Houseman. Gareth Purnell stepped up but again missed.
A further chance presented itself to Purnell on the half-hour that he dispatched to make it a four point deficit and game on, but it came at a cost, losing Scott Chapman to an ankle injury. This proved to be the pivotal turning point of the game.
Missed Ashfield tackles led to a sustained period of pressure by the home side and Jack Smith raced over for a good try that was again converted. On half-time Belper held a commanding 17-6 lead over their visitors. With the second half underway, Belper fed off the below-par Ashfield performance and, with the penalty count mounting up, Ashfield’s Matt Turnbull paid the price with a yellow card for his first offence and a penalty to Belper. Instead of taking an easy three-point penalty, Belper opted for a quick tap and ran at the Ashfield defence, who this time held firm.
But again they conceded another penalty which again saw Belper decline a kickable three points, Ashfield’s Mark Denman and Greg Newbutt repelling the second wave of this Belper attack. This seemed to spur Ashfield on and, with a rare foray into the Belper half, set up a platform that looked certain to reduce the point’s deficit.
Forward Pat Orrell found himself in open space, drew a defender and threw a pass towards wing Brent Leivers.
The ball headed into the hands of Leivers, but from nowhere a Belper player intercepted the ball and raced from inside his own 22 to the Ashfield 5m line. The simultaneous arrival of Ashfield’s Danny Wilson and Billy North caught the Belper player in two minds, giving Wilson time to smuggle the ball clear.
Belper would not be denied and minutes later Eddie Watson scored a further try that was again converted to go 18 points clear.
The game looked to have been closed out by the home team, but Billy North scored an opportunist try and had the final say, and with a missed conversion the score was Belper 24, Ashfield 11. With the game heading towards the final whistle, poor Ashfield defending, a frequent occurrence all afternoon gave a further opportunity to Belper.
With a three-man overlap, Belper worked the ball through the hands of their backs and wing Dave Bacon crossed the line for what he thought was a try. The referee blew his whistle, but instead of awarding a try he gave Ashfield possession for a forward pass by Belper. This was a lucky escape for Ashfield and saved them from a heavier defeat.
Over the 80 minutes Ashfield were second best in most departments.
But with the determination of captain Gareth Jones, tenacious tackling of Tyler Morgan and guile of Matt Upton, they will hope to bounce back quickly in their next home match against Bingham on Saturday.