Eager Ashfield still enjoyed a useful workout, despite progressing to the semi-finals of the Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Derbyshire Plate without needing to take to the field.
Ashfield were awarded their quarter-final tie because opponents North Hykeham could not fulfil the fixture. They now join East Retford, Grimsby and the winners of the game between Worksop and Notts Moderns in the last four, which will be played on Saturday, February 6 next year.
However, to ensure their quarter-final preparation wasn’t wasted, a friendly game against Ilkeston 2nd was hasilty arranged. And although Ashfield lost 32-28, director rugby Mark Denman was quick to justify the merit of the fixture.
“The squad looked sharp in training during the week, so it was imperative to channel their aggression in a positive manner,” said Denman.
“We took a mixed squad of first-team and second-team players that allowed fringe players to shine on a bigger stage, and they didn’t miss this opportunity to impress.”
The game started quickly for Ilkeston. With ball in hand, they moved through multiple phases, penetrating the Ashfield defensive line time and again. But Ashfield’s scrambled defence held tight until quick ball from the home side had the defence wrongfooted and the Ilkeston wing scored in the right-hand corner. The conversion was missed, but it wasn’t long before Ilkeston doubled their lead through a similarly worked, unconverted try to go 10-0 up.
The new-look Ashfield backline was disjointed throughout the opening 15 minutes, but slowly, the cohesion came and the introduction of prop Adam Roebuck on 25 minutes brought the visitors back into the game with a try after good forward play. From a scrum, a rolling maul was formed and three phases later, Roebuck was unstoppable from ten metres out, almost dragging two Ilkeston players with him. Up stepped Gareth Purnell and from left of centre field, he added the additional two points when his kick bisected the uprights.
Back came Ilkeston who, using the slope at the Stute to their advantage, scored another try, again exploiting the defensive frailties of the Ashfield backline. Fortunately, the fly-half again missed the conversion, but as half-time arrived, the hosts led 15-7.
After changes to both sides at the break, the second half looked like it would peter out, with neither side taking the initiative. That was until Jake Moss playing at inside centre, scored a terrific try. The backs, working together, fashioned the score and Moss finished it off by showing his strength, breaking through the defensive line and displaying a clean pair of heals. Purnell added the additional points to cut Ilkeston’s advantage to one point.
Sadly, in a weekend that yielded refereeing errors at the highest level in the World Cup, Ashfield were also on the wrong end of controversy when they conceded a penalty after it looked to all that the player had played the ball legally. This gave a platform that the home side would not refuse and another unconverted try was scored, moving the score on to 20–14. This decision seemed to drain the fight out of Ashfield, and to Ilkeston’s credit, they fully exploited this by adding two further tries and a conversion.
Trailing 32-14, the game seeemed out of Ashfield’s reach, but they fought back with two Jake Manning tries, both converted by Purnell. The first was a typical effort as he shook off defender after defender to cross the line. The second was a solo effort that started deep in his own half.
After the game, Denman was full of praise for the commitment shown by his players.