It’s been a tough couple of years on the pitch for Mansfield Rugby Club, but they got off to a great start to the new season with an NLD Cup win over Ashbourne.
A combination of injuries, players leaving for reward from other clubs and new players arriving has seen consistency prove to be something of a pipedream. Unfortunately, that’s just the way amateur rugby works; a cyclical process that can both be beneficial and disadvantageous.
The new season began on Saturday with NLD Cup duty and got off to the best possible start, even if it didn’t seem that way after 40 minutes.
But 45 unanswered points in the second 40 minutes saw Mansfield pull off a much needed victory against a dogged and determined Ashbourne side.
Head Coach Wayne Robinson said: “We have worked hard all summer preparing and we knew Ashbourne would not give up lightly.
“I’m proud of the whole squad and the most pleasing aspect was that we went behind but kept our shape and stuck to the plan resulting in the perfect start to our season.”
The away side had clearly come to play and, initially, they took the blue-and-whites by surprise.
Ashbourne took much of the possession early on, threatening the try line with an attack that took advantage of the Eakring Road pitch.
Unfortunately, after a handful of unsuccessful attempts at pinning Mansfield back in their own corner, that particular tactic was dropped for a more direct, running-based approach.
Mansfield indiscipline also helped the Ashbourne cause, the home side giving away far too many penalties to be able to put any kind of mark on the game. That said, it was the blue-and-whites who opened the scoring with returning fly half Ash Wills gliding through the Ashbourne defence to dot down out wide.
Full-back, and match day sponsor Greene King’s joint Man of the Match, John Ross Ward uncharacteristically missed the conversion, leaving the score at 5-0.
Ward would make up for that missed kick by slotting a penalty shortly after, extending the lead to 8-0, and continued that vein by not missing another kick for the rest of the match, most of which were from the touchline.
While Mansfield were not completely out of the game, some crisp running by Wills, Aiden McGregor and some thumping tackles by joint man of the match Gareth Gripton and No. 8 Liam Annable being particular highlights, they would not score again until the second half.
A succession of penalties allowed Ashbourne to make dents in the Mansfield defence and a quick tap penalty from 15 metres saw them put their first points on the board. A tap penalty so quick that this reporter had barely managed to note down the discretion that led to the score!
The conversion was missed but Ashbourne’s confidence was up, the score reading 8-5 to the home side.
The remainder of the half can be summed up in three words: Another Ashbourne penalty. Ashbourne scored two further tries: one an interception as Mansfield were battling out of their own 22 and another from an Ashbourne scrum.
Mansfield were reduced to 14 men as Gripton was sent to the sin bin for coming in at the side, a punishment meted out for repeated infringements rather than for anything cynical on Gripton’s part. The half time score read 8-15 and there were some nervous looks on the side-lines.
The second half saw Mansfield grow in confidence as they started to gel as a team and putting points on the board.
Annable continued his form from the first half, peeling off the back of an attacking scrum before feeding to James Phillips on the wing for the youngster to race to the line. Ward slotted the conversion to bring Mansfield back into the game, 15-15.
This seemed to galvanise Mansfield and they started with some more confident plays, a further five tries and a penalty testament to the growing confidence in the side.
The pack stood firm in the set piece, allowing the backs a platform to play off that had been sorely lacking in previous matches.
Leading from the front, new Skipper and prop Liam Grant took advantage of a well executed lineout drive to dot down in the corner.
Wills showed a turn of pace that was very welcome as he scored another after running 50m. Ward showed he’s not just a kicker with a try of his own after stellar work from Annable, Lee Shaw and Wills, and Emmanuel Ogunode banished the disappointment of last season, helping to set up a try for youngster Joe Ducker and scoring one of his own, Mansfield’s last, as the game neared its end.
The final score read 53-15 and was a welcome sight for the Eakring Road faithful. A winning start is just what the team, and the club, needed. Ashbourne, to their credit, never took a backward step, their determination evident over the course of the match. However, this was a well-earned victory and one that Mansfield can take a lot of heart from.
Next week is the first league game of the new season and Nottingham Casuals visit Eakring Road. Kick off is at 3pm and you can follow the action on Twitter @MansfieldRugby.