A devastating counter-attacking game, which included a hat-trick of tries for Jake Manning, enabled Ashfield to maul last season’s arch rivals, Belper, and keep their unbeaten run going in the Midlands 3 East (North) Division.
Even though they recorded more wins, Ashfield were pipped to the Fourth Division title by Belper last term when both clubs were promoted. But it was only by virtue of bonus points -- an annoying fact that had been gnawing away at Mark Denman’s side ever since.
This was the perfect chance to put the record straight -- and a 47-18 triumph did just that, as well as lifting them to fourth in the table, only three points behind joint leaders Loughborough and Ashby.
The hat-trick by outside centre Manning and a brace of tries from inside centre Billy North might lead observers to think it was a game Ashfield won with terrific attacking flair. But on the contrary, they produced a defensive display that was, occasionally, try saving. Indeed Belper enjoyed 65% of possession and found themselves 10-0 ahead in the opening ten minutes when the visitors looked a little disorganised.
Director of rugby Denman was delighted, though, and was quick to express how “all 18 squad players contributed to the emphatic win with some defiant and, at times, last-ditch defending, great anticipation and belief that we could capitalise on the opposition’s mistakes”.
The opening try was well worked by the Belper back line, with a clinical switch in direction by the inside centre wrongfooting the Ashfield defence. The conversion was scored with ease, and a penalty, awarded for offside, soon followed, both in front of the posts.
Ashfield got a foothold in the game in the 17th minute when North made an interception on the 22-metre line, with Belper trying to play an expansive game, and raced in for a try that Gareth Purnell converted.
North’s try was quickly followed by the unstoppable Manning crossing the line for the first time after anticipating a looping pass from his opposite number 30 metres out. So when Purnell again converted, Ashfield led 14-10.
With some aggressive counter-rucking by Greg Utting and Matt Turnbull, flanker Reece Courtney wriggled free and set off downfield for a try that was disallowed. But it wasn’t long before Ashfield were scoring again as ever-alert scrum-half Matt Upton dived over.
North was again in the action, running in a try from halfway, leaving the Belper defence totally demoralised. And although Purnell missed the conversion for the first time, Ashfield were now in total control and went in at half-time 26-10 up.
Against the scoring pattern, Belper were first on the scoresheet in the second period with a penalty 18 metres out, again awarded for offside. But just as they looked to be playing themselves back into the game, after six or seven phases of play, Ashfield’s counter-attacking stunned them again.
Rob Kirk looked all set for a breakaway try until a last-gasp tackle by the home full-back dislodged the ball. But after a scrum, the ball was on against the head and two phases later, Manning broke two tackles to score under the posts.
After North and Adam Roebuck had stopped a certain home try, Belper did cut the deficit to 33-18 when the winger found himself in acres of space in the cotrner. But they were then forced to throw caution to the wind, helping Ashfield to pick them off with two further interception tries from Manning and Kirk that were converted by the prolific Purnell. Manning’s effort was the try of the game as he ran some 85 metres, while Kirk charged in from 55 metres.
Ashfield should now be full of confidence ahead of their next league game, which is this Saturday at home to Boston, who sit mid-table after three wins, one draw and one defeat in their opening five fixtures far this term.