With the pressure of chasing promotion now off, Newport were asked to give their faithful support something to cheer about, after last weekend’s second half capitulation at the hands of Burton. There was no danger of the visitors from Derby, although bottom of the league and without a solitary win since early December, being taken lightly. That mistake was made in the reverse fixture and it was Newport who were the last team to be defeated by the men in black and amber.
A rash of injuries and illnesses, meant that Henry Vaka, an inside centre by trade, packed down at Number 8, for the first time ever, and Kirk Robinson was moved to partner Oli Buckley in the second row. In the three quarters Jake Leonard returned at stand-off and Monty Maule shifted out to partner Chris Perry in the centres. Alex Haselock returned from injury and took the left wing berth vacated by Toby Mann, who was representing the RAF. On the bench Dec Hadley made a first appearance of the season, and veteran Rich Harris was called up for his first outing for the 1st fifteen since the 2016/17 campaign.
Under a glorious blue sky and in front of a healthy crowd the game began in calamitous fashion for Newport, when after only thirty seconds, a missed tackle allowed the big Derby lock forward to sprint straight up the middle of the field. A despairing tackle from Vaka was adjudged to have been high and the resulting penalty was duly kicked to the corner. A perfectly executed catch and drive allowed captain, Martin Kent to touch down. George Castledine then nailed a difficult conversion and Derby led 7-0.
For the remainder of the next fifteen or so minutes, it was Derby who dominated in terms of territory and possession, and although Newport did begin to probe the visitor’s defence, a lack of accuracy in execution, meant that the scoreboard operator remained idle.
On eighteen minutes Newport suddenly came alive. Leonard looked to attack from deep in Newport’s half, but his run was halted by a high tackle. Sam Brown immediately took the tap penalty and fed Vaka, who was still some fifteen metres shy of the halfway line when he received the ball. He then fended would be tacklers, side stepped others, and showed impressive
strength to cover fully sixty five metres, and score under the posts. Maule added the simple conversion and the scores were tied at 7-7.
Hallway through the half Jordan Grass was forced from the field to have a head wound attended to and Charlie Hill joined the action as his temporary replacement.
Derby regained the lead with a Castledine penalty, before Newport added their second try of the afternoon after thirty minutes play. Hill, an absolute wrecking ball in open play bounced two Derby defenders, before feeding the supporting Tom Cowell. His pass released the third member of the front row Jack Wells, who was turning back the years, and displaying a startling turn of pace. Wells in turn found Himbury on the right wing and he was only halted seven metres short. There then followed a fine passage of play, including a full tilt charge by Buckley, and finished off with a mazy run by Maule to dot down under the posts. Extras added, the score was now 14-10 in favour of Newport.
Newport added a further two tries in the final ten minutes of the half. The first of these was created by a fully committed crash ball from Perry, and a sniping run by Brown from the resulting break down. His inside pass found Vaka, who made Maule’s job easy by again going under the posts. The next effort was a solid team effort. Buckley took line-out ball off the top, Leonard’s dash straightened the attack, before Maule’s long pass was received by Haselock. Still averaging a try a game this season, Haselock is a deadly finisher and he needed no second invitation. Maule’s more difficult conversion was missed and Newport were now 26-10 to the good.
Restarts have been an Achilles heel for Newport all season, and this was again the case this Saturday. Derby took full advantage and mounted a determined attack through the well balanced running of former Namibian international, McGrath Van Wyk. He was lined up and tackled head on by Liam Holder, forcing the ball to go loose, but it was pounced upon by the alert scrum-half, Josh Tizzard, who scurried over the try line to score. A successful conversion meant that at halftime, Newport, despite already securing the try bonus point, only led 26-17.
Hadley replaced Haselock at half-time and Harris had already joined the fray to give Vaka a break on thirty minutes.
The second half belonged to Newport and they were able to add a further four tries at regular intervals. The first on six minutes was finished by a determined Holder run, after a dominant scrum had provided Brown with front foot ball. Simple hands from Maule and Perry and Holder’s well timed charge did the rest. Maule was back on target and wouldn’t miss again all afternoon.
Vaka returned, with Jack Price making way, and Hill made his second appearance, this time for Wells. Vaka, clearly warming to the task of forward duties, now collected a Derby overthrow at a defensive lineout and shrugged off the attentions of the Derby defence to register his third try. His contribution wasn’t finished yet though. First his ball control at the base of the scrum and then turn of pace after picking up the ball, allowed him to make headway before finding Robinson at speed. His run was bravely checked by Van Wyk, who managed to hold the ball up. However, from the resulting scrum, Vaka again backed himself, picking up from the base, and accelerating away to bag his fourth. His natural ball skills, combined with his physical strength and considerable rugby savvy, meant that he was able to adapt to the positional change with no trouble whatsoever and it may be that many of our regular opponents, who plan a defensive strategy around negating Henry’s centre play, may be posed a different puzzle next season.
The final try was scored by Henry Purchase, who after a sluggish start to the game, had played a very solid second period. His work rate, particularly at the breakdown, has been a boon for Newport all season, and his return to studies at Bath University, will be a loss to the squad come September.
The final score read 54-17 and the game was an entertaining and good spirited encounter all round. Derby, already relegated and with nothing to play for, save pride, had travelled with a positive attitude, and their willingness to keep ball in hand and play some expansive rugby had certainly added to the spectacle. Though they did visibly wilt as the game wore on, and lost a couple of players to injuries sustained, they kept battling right to the end.
In the end it was a convincing win, and with both Scunthorpe and Luctonians recording bonus point wins, secured Newport third place for the second season running. Worthy of note were the support play of Price, Wells and Cowell, the barnstorming charges of Hill and Robinson, the increased tempo of the play set by Brown and Leonard, and the all round contribution from Harris. What he lacks in physical presence is compensated by his reading of the game, and he is the only player I have seen this season who tackles lower than Grass. Harris seems to go at bootlace height!
Next Saturday is the final game of the season, away at free scoring Doncaster Phoenix. Your support as always would be very welcome.
Team: Grass, Cowell (C), Wells, Buckley, Robinson, Purchase, Price, Vaka, Brown, Leonard, Haselock, Maule, Perry, Himbury, Holder, Hill, Harris, Hadley