Doncaster Phoenix 17 Newport (Salop) 47 13th April 2019

This was a dead rubber game, with Newport guaranteed third place, whatever the result, and Doncaster safe from the possibility of relegation, having put together a fine run of form throughout March. Those not in the know, might well have expected it to be staid affair, with both teams just going through the motions, but neither of these two outfits had any other intention than playing some exciting adventurous rugby, and going all out for a season ending win.

Doncaster Phoenix are probably the most attack minded side Newport have played in recent years. Their defensive frailties, especially in the latter stages of games against Newport, have been exposed, but they always contribute hugely to every game, in terms of skill, flair and a definite joie de vivre, with their attacking mindset. I hope that when the teams are shuffled around for the 2019-20 season, Donny do not get moved back to the North.

Compared to our previous three games with Donny this was a low scoring game…only sixty four points! The previous three encounters have averaged eighty one points a game. That’s got to be worth a fiver of anyone’s money!

Injuries and unavailability meant that Rich Harris started on the open-side and Henry Vaka was given a second run at Number 8. On the bench, Will Roach and Charlie Hill, provided the cover, and fingers were kept crossed that there would not be too many problems in the three quarters.

Donny’s pitch, who they share with Doncaster Knights of the Championship, is the best in the league by some distance, and is a perfect surface for the open game, which both teams favour. The sky was overcast, and a noticeable breeze picked up just as the game commenced, with Newport playing into this, for the first half.
Newport got off to a quick start with a fifth minute Alex Haselock try. Henry Purchase soared high to win line-out ball off the top, Sam Brown, fed Monty Maule and he hit Vaka on the burst. The ball was returned to the supporting Maule, and his pass put Haselock away. With the conversion missed by Maule, Newport had a 5-0 advantage.

It was Donny however, who went on to dominate both possession and territory throughout the first half. On twelve minutes, they got themselves level, after James Wright scored on the left touchline. He was the beneficiary of a strong scrum five metres out, in centre field, and good hands along the back-line, aided by some weak defence from Newport.
Donny were running absolutely everything – I only remember them kicking once in open play all afternoon – and playing the game at a quick tempo, the like of which I have only seen Newport manage this season. Doncaster’s stand-off, and outside centre, were already showing that they were quality players and both would continue to pose a threat all game. In addition their open-side flanker, Jacob Robinson, was an absolute dynamo, and throughout the first half there often seemed like he had an identical twin on the field, such was the level of his involvement in all facets of the game.

It was Robinson who scored Donny’s second try to put them in front, and with the extras added by Seth Adams, the score now favoured the home side, 12-5. Newport, without doubt, were not one hundred per cent connected in defence early on, and this lack of cohesion was being exploited.
Newport were starved of possession for extended periods, but when the limited opportunities arose, they gave ample warning that they are a very dangerous outfit, ball in hand. Oli Buckley, Kirk Robinson, Roach and Hill, were making some trademark direct carries, and Max Himbury, in particular, was finding space out wide. Hill, whose training regime consists of long hours on building sites, and little time participating in rugby drills, and is a throwback to the rugby ethos of yesteryear, is a frightening prospect for any defender, who chooses to attempt to tackle him, anywhere other than low. One unfortunate Donny player made this costly error of judgement, and the resultant collision left him prostrate, and the ground shuddering for several seconds.

As the game entered the last five minutes of the half, a great pilfer by Tom Cowell, at the breakdown, gave Brown the chance to make a sniping run. He found Leonard, whose missed pass to Haselock, allowed the winger to make good yards. Maule was in support and took the ball on, but so too was Robinson, and it was he, who sprinted home to level the scores. Leonard took over the kicking duties, and was successful with the simple conversion.
This try was certainly scored against the run of play, but seemed to ignite Newport, who then went on to extend their lead with the final play of the half. Roach, hardworking throughout the game, found Vaka, and his inside ball, put the dancing feet of Maule into action. Leonard slotted home the conversion, and at half time Newport led 19-12.
The second half, as it has done in all of our games against Donny, in the main part, belonged to Newport. They added a further four tries, all converted by Leonard, and stretched the lead to thirty points, by the final whistle. This does not tell the whole story though, as unlike many teams, Donny did not capitulate. They were outplayed for long periods, but they stuck to their principles and game plan, and continued to keep ball in hand, and apply pressure at every opportunity.

Newport’s first try of the second period came after a turnover at scrum time, and some probing carries by the big men, preceded quick hands to the wide left, where Maule darted over to record a brace. Midway through the half, a majestic catch at the tail of the lineout by Roach, enabled Newport to set up the driving maul, and Robinson was the next to bag a pair.

Newport were now playing at optimum tempo, and were enjoying the lion’s share of ball and territory, but were caught napping when Declan Cusack, put a speculative kick deep into Newport’s half. He followed up and his pressure led to a misfield, and the scoring of Donny’s third try.

With ten minutes remaining, a perfectly executed wrap around play, with Cowell, put Brown under the posts and five minutes later, Purchase showed strength and determination, to charge away from the contact area and ‘put the icing on the cake’, of a fine second half showing.

This was a solid all round team performance, but Leonard was voted man of the match, by the opposition, in my book, the best accolade you can get The season is now finished, and Newport have for the second year running, finished in third spot. The season ahead won’t get any easier, as Birmingham and Solihull, Peterborough Lions and old foes, South Leicester, all return to tier 5 rugby. Joining them will be the promoted teams, Bromsgrove, Kettering and either Paviors, or Dudley Kingswinford.

However, there is much to feel positive about. Newport have young players, who have shown that they are comfortable at this level, and will only improve with experience. Up front, Grass, at loose-head, is only 22, Hill at tight-head, 20. Buckley, Parker and Robinson are mid twenties, while Price is only 22. Behind the scrum, Brown, Himbury and Bailey are all shy of 25, whist Haselock and Leonard are still teenagers. If these players and their more experienced squad mates can be kept together, Newport will be in the mix next season, that’s for sure.

A few stats to finish with:

Total points 2018-19, 858
Total tries 2018-19, 127
Different try scorers 2018-19, 26
Top points scorer 2018-19, Monty Maule, 168 points (out injured for over two months)
Top try scorer 2018-19, Henry Vaka, 18 tries (5th year in succession – has scored a total of 150 tries in just 132 appearances )
Honourable Mention 2018-19, Alex Haselock, 15 tries in 16 appearances.
Most appearances 2018-19, Tom Cowell and Sam Brown, 26
Players used 2018-19, 35
Current players with over 100 appearances for Newport, Jack Wells 174, Liam Holder 165, Tom Cowell 158, Chris Perry 141, Rich Harris 135, Toby Mann 132, Henry Vaka 132, Nathan Parker 111

Team: Grass, Cowell (C), Wells, Buckley, Robinson, Purchase, Harris, Vaka, Brown, Leonard, Haselock, Maule, Perry, Himbury, Holder, Roach, Hill, Wilson