The bid by depleted Ashfield to reach the final of the Nottinghamshire Intermediate County Cup ended in failure at the hands of Nottingham Casuals.
In a result that mirrored their slide in form during the second half of the season, Ashfield fell to a 40-7 defeat.
But to be fair, they were always going to be up against it, taking on a Casuals side who finished mid-table in the National League division above them (three places ahead of Mansfield), especially as they had so many players missing and were forced to field a much-changed side.
They were changes that left coach Gareth Jones downhearted but philosophical after the tie. “A stag weekend, holidays and injuries took their toll yet again,” said Jones.
“I can only praise the lads who made the trip and stepped up to the plate. Unfortunately, we were second best and couldn’t live with Casuals’ slick handling backs.
“It might have been a different outcome if we had not missed two penalties in the opening ten minutes, prior to Casuals scoring. And our scrum was effective throughout the match on our put-in. But we didn’t get enough good field position.”
In fact, despite their status as underdogs, Ashfield more than held their own in the first 15 minutes. Their game plan revolved around kicking for corners, which led to their early chances and also starved the home side of the ball.
Billy North pulled the strings and with the pack retaining and recycling the ball, it looked a matter of time before they scored. Dominating territory, they made Casuals defend grimly and forced them into blunders.
However, the longer the match went on, the more the dynamics changed. And after two converted tries, the home side found themselves 14 points in front by the 28th minute, and never really looked back. Full-back Ben Hallam burst through to touch down for the first and was then instrumental in the move that led to the second, scored by Brodie Howatson.
At least Ashfield didn’t capitulate, as they had done in the final weeks of their league campaign. There was a spirit and resolve in the side that the setbacks couldn’t shake and a converted try by Adam Roebuck reduced the deficit to seven points by the half-time break.
In the second period, though, Casuals maintained a stranglehold on the tie, adding four more tries, three of which were converted. Mark Higgins scored the first, after good work by influential substitute Graeme Roberts, and Steve Naylor ploughed through several tackles for the second.
Hallam evaded the flagging Ashfield defence for the third try before Casuals rounded off the scoring when flanker Henry Franklin emerged from a ruck of players to dive over. The five successful conversions were kicked by Higgins.
In response, the visitors struggled to gain any possession or territory and it’s fair to say that the margin of defeat could have been greater without a try-saving tackle by North late on in the action.
The result draws a veil over what has been a mixed campaign for Ashfield. But overall, they can take comfort from the fact that they were competitive for the majority of it, while the emergence of several talented youngsters, who have progressed through the junior ranks to the senior side, has been a big bonus for the club.
Meanwhile Casuals go through to the county cup final, which takes place at Southwell Rugby Club’s ground this coming Sunday (May 1, kick-off 3.30 pm) against Moderns.