After a dominant first half performance, which garnered Newport a 26-8 lead by the break, the wheels came off in spectacular fashion in the second forty minutes. When in full flight and playing the expansive, high-tempo rugby of which they are capable, Newport, in the words of a hard-core Burton supporter behind me in the sheds, “look like scoring every time they attack.” Unfortunately, the second half showing was the polar opposite and Newport allowed control of the game to be wrested from their grasp, they completely lost the capacity to think clearly and adhere to the game-plan, and ultimately became mired in a narrow, forward oriented game, that they were never going to win.
Newport’s undoing, all season long, has been their inability to stick to the script and play high quality, precise rugby, for a full eighty minutes. When playing at, or near their best, as they have done on many occasions, for 20, 30 or 40 minutes, they are a joy to watch and can put any team in this league to the sword. However, this free flowing, expansive and accurate play has never been sustained for an entire game. Sometimes they have started poorly and have come alive after the break, Sandbach at home, being a case in point, where they overturned a nineteen point deficit, with a sublime second half performance, and on others, fallen apart in the second half, none more devastatingly though, than on Saturday. There’s no doubt that Newport have quality players in every position and a style and pace, that teams at this level find difficult to live with, but there is far too often a fundamental disconnect between what is talked about and planned, and what actually transpires. It’s an issue that much thought will be given to over the Summer and I have every confidence can be righted.
With Toby Mann, away in France representing the RAF, Liam Holder returned on the left wing, for his first start in five months. Will Roach, after just one week’s absence also returned on the blindside flank. Craig Wilson’s damaged ribs meant a call up for tighthead Charlie Hill, who started on the bench alongside Henry Purchase and Jake Leonard.
The conditions were perfect, with a clear sky and no significant wind and the numbers watching were buoyed by the attendees of the Ladies Lunch, who unlike at our game last week, all seemed to come out to enjoy the game. Not so good for bar profits, but they certainly got behind their team.
The game began with positive intent from Newport, but they were on the wrong side of a couple of early turnovers, before in the sixth minute being given a huge wake-up call, when their scrum was absolutely taken apart, leading to a penalty. The result was a kick to touch, a cleanly won line-out, some probing runs by the Burton forwards and then a pin-point, cross field kick from Argentinean stand-off, Florencio Llerana, which was caught on the full by wing, Nicholas Oxley, allowing him to score on the wide left.
Newport were not however put off their stride by this early setback, and continued to go wide at every opportunity, playing with pace and vision, that was allowing them to exploit any available space. Superb handling, including a clever assist from captain, Tom Cowell, saw Monty Maule dart over on the wide left, before nailing a fantastic conversion of his own try from the touchline.
With the exception of the set scrums, where they struggled all afternoon, the remainder of the half belonged to Newport. A further three tries were added, in the final fifteen minutes, meaning the bonus point was in the bag by the break, and all three illustrated the attacking quality that Newport possess in abundance. The first was set-up by the speed, strength and footwork of Max Himbury and finished by the willing support play of Nathan Parker. The second was Barbarians style rugby at its best. The ball was kept alive and went through numerous sets of hands, both forwards and backs, before Henry Vaka, a man who needs no second invitation, slipped through the back peddling defence to score. The third effort was the best of all. Cowell used the back door option, Himbury again showed his power out wide and then exceptional interplay between Maule, Jack Price and Ricky Bailey allowed the latter to touch down. Maule converted two of the three tries, including a second monster kick from the touchline, and Burton only added a penalty to their total, meaning the half ended with Newport 26-8 to the good.
The entire team had played well, but in particular Oli Buckley had stood out with some huge one up tackles. Newport had managed to get their big runners in the right channels and had played at a pace that was making the home team suffer. It is also worthy of note that Newport’s second, third and fourth tries, came when the referee, Andrew Smith, was playing advantage. He deserved all the plaudits. All afternoon he tried to let the game flow, and he is certainly amongst the top officials at this level.
The second half is difficult to sum up. Firstly, hats off to Burton. To come out and turn around an eighteen point deficit, and prevent Newport, who average 32 points a game, from scoring a single point is impressive. Only the most one eyed Newport supporter would say that they didn’t deserve their victory. Their scrum was immense, I would go as far as to say, the best we have faced all season, they played to their strengths and willed on by vocal support, they got enthused.
The maddening thing is that Newport’s poor decision making and poor game management massively contributed to their own downfall. They didn’t capitalise on their first half superiority, found great difficulty getting any meaningful possession and when they did decided not to go to the edges and exploit their opponent’s weaknesses.
The writing was on the wall as early as the sixth minute, when Burton opted for the scrum option, having been awarded a penalty in front of the Newport posts. The Newport scrum creaked and was then shoved backwards and another penalty conceded. Again, Burton opted for a scrum and again it went in the same direction. Mr. Smith then ordered a third reset and only an immense effort by loose head Jordan Grass in locking out against his huge opponent allowed Newport to escape unpunished.
In the tenth minute, with Newport, very much under the cosh, their job was made even more difficult, when Vaka was dispatched to the sin-bin, having been adjudged to have deliberately knocked the ball on. Four minutes later and constant pressure from Burton’s big pack eventually made space for Will Simpson to score. He then converted to reduce the arrears to 26-15.
Burton now sensed upsetting the form book, were playing with confidence and were starving Newport of possession. Taking full advantage of their extra man, centre Josh Kent, showed nifty footwork to slice through Newport’s defence and score his team’s third try. A Simpson conversion meant there were now only four points in it, and the home side were very much in the ascendency.
There was no lack of effort from Newport in defence, but their incapacity to firstly, get hold of the ball, and secondly, play the game in the right areas of the pitch was being hugely exposed. With ten minutes remaining Burton were awarded another penalty, five metres out, and in front of the posts. They quite legitimately opted to bring back tighthead Matthew Tivey for the scrum option and yet again, he and his seven teammates put Newport under so much pressure, that the front row stood up and a penalty try was awarded. With no conversion required, the score was now 29-26 in favour of Burton. Interestingly, Tivey, I am told has played over 280 games for Burton, the first 150 at stand-off, or inside centre, and the remainder at tighthead!
In the final ten minutes, Newport came back into the game, and certainly dominated territory, but aside from one occasion, when Chris Perry, now operating on the left wing, was bundled into touch a couple of metres short, they chose to stay narrow, and attempt to batter their way forward through their big men. Hindsight is always perfect after the event, and its massively difficult to think with total clarity when your season is on the line, and the clock is running down, but if they had attacked wide, I think this report may have had a different ending.
As it was Burton took the spoils with a 29-26 win and a victory that will hopefully secure their Midlands Premier status next season. I admire the guts and determination they showed to not roll over, and battle back to win.
For Newport’s part, the promotion dream is over, for this season, for all but the fantasists. I have no doubt that there will be a huge positive reaction and that every man involved will want to finish the season on a high with two convincing wins. Going forward, there will be much discussion regarding game management and perhaps an acceptance, that at this level, a dominant set scrum, can be very advantageous indeed.
If indeed we do finish in third position, for the second year running, I hope that this is seen by all, as the huge achievement it is. It certainly should not be viewed as a failure in any way. Midlands Premier is an extremely competitive league, where some very good teams ply their trade, and over two seasons, Newport have proven that they are up with the best of them.
Team: Grass, Cowell (C), Wells, Buckley, Parker, Roach, Price, Robinson, Brown, Maule, Holder, Vaka, Perry, Himbury, Bailey, Leonard, Purchase, Hill.