It’s thirteen months since Newport lost two on the bounce – it’s not a good feeling for anyone concerned with the club, but it’s something that just has to be dealt with. There will be much introspection and analysis over the coming fortnight, but the truth is Newport didn’t play badly and haven’t suddenly become a poor team.
The overriding fact is that there are several other quality teams, in this very competitive league. They too, have high calibre players and coaching, well-thought out strategies and pride in the shirt they wear. Their job, is to stop Newport winning every game, and if it weren’t for that challenge, the game wouldn’t be worth playing. The top of most decent standard competition, in just about any sport, is very often decided by small margins. That’s apparent to all, with our two January losses in 2017, by four points in one game and a solitary point in the other, and again this season, with a one point loss to Scunthorpe a week ago and two points to Sheffield yesterday. What’s not always obvious, and this is where the coaches and leaders in the team, have to put in the hours, is why the other team gained that small, but all important edge.
If we had shaded the two most recent games, by a point or two, the coaches and players would have been lauded, as it is, they are left to lick their wounds, pick themselves up, and come out fighting – such is the fickle nature of sport at this level, where results rule all. Newport were forced to ring the changes in the three quarters, for this first ever visit to Abbeydale Sports Club, Ricky Bailey having failed a late fitness test. Chris Perry was moved to full-back, Jake Leonard came in at fly-half, with Monty Maule and Henry Vaka moving out one position, to form a new centre partnership. Up front, Jordan Grass was preferred to Craig Wilson in the front row, and Henry Purchase, after waiting patiently amongst the replacements in recent weeks, was given the nod over Will Roach, on the blindside flank. Rhys Morgan, out injured for five weeks made a welcome return and was named on the bench. Although there was a stiff breeze favouring Sheffield in the first half, the game started under a clear blue sky and on a very good, fast, playing surface. For the first fifteen minutes Sheffield hardly touched the ball. Newport completely dominated both possession and to the greater extent territory, but tellingly it was their opponents who scored first. Wisely, playing into the prevailing wind, Newport had kept ball in hand.
They had several times built the pressure through multiple phases, the handling was crisp, and the work at the breakdown was aggressive and technically sound. Jack Price had had a gallop down the right wing, Alex Haselock, a similar run down the right flank. Oli Buckley, Nathan Parker, Tom Cowell, Kirk Robinson and even Maule had provided plenty of go-forward with some huge carries, and Newport were mixing it up with some well-executed backline plays, but ultimately all the attacking efforts had fizzled out in the red zone, due to minor technical errors, errors of judgement, and in no small part, due to Sheffield’s magnificent defensive effort. Sheffield seemed happy just to play the territory game and when they did get hold of the ball, pinned Newport deep in their own half with some efficient kicking. Their only meaningful attack in the first quarter of an hour was thwarted by a monster tackle by Perry, who almost cut the attacking player in half and caused the ball to be lost forward.
Sheffield’s scrum half Steven Depledge knocked over a routine penalty on fifteen minutes, after Newport transgressed at the breakdown, but it was still Newport who were in the ascendency. Sam Brown made a fine sniping run, the forwards continued to carry hard, Leonard was looking comfortable at ten and keeping the defence honest, by not only being a distributor, but also a running threat and they always looked dangerous. Unfortunately, Sheffield’s nigh on impregnable wall, coupled with inexact execution at critical times, meant Newport went unrewarded for their considerable efforts. As the half neared its end Sheffield began to get a foothold in the game and a period of five or six minutes completely belonged to them. After an attack, which was repelled out wide, the referee brought play back to a position five metres from Newport’s line, and directly under the posts, where he awarded a penalty. Turning down a certain three points, Sheffield opted for the scrum, and then again, after Newport committed an offence, took a second scrum. From this they attacked through their forwards and then fly-half, Will Hodgson, managed to wriggle through to touch down. Fortuitously, for Newport, Depledge hit the post with his conversion attempt, and Sheffield now had an 8- 0 advantage. Newport were to finish the half the stronger though, and in the final two or three minutes, racked up a series of approaching thirty phases. There was no lack of effort in any quarter, and in fact some were having perhaps their best performances of the season.
Grass was evidencing that he can be used as a ball carrier, as well as being a tackling workhorse, and Purchase was seizing his chance and displaying not only aggression in his carries, but also a very sound technical skill set and knowledge of the laws, in and around the tackle and the breakdown. Roach replaced Buckley at the commencement of the second half, which began just as Newport would have wished, with them getting the first score. A simple penalty for Maule gave Newport three points and was to kick-start their comeback. With the wind now at their backs, the conditions demanded that Newport play a territory game and utilise their kickers to the full. Initially it seemed that they were going to continue to keep ball in hand, but sense prevailed and both Leonard and Maule did began to turn Sheffield around with some well placed efforts, deep into the opposition half. Early on, Haselock made a break and fed Price. His were being willed on by a home crowd unused to seeing their team on the back-foot, Sheffield having only lost at home once this season. Morgan had announced his return with a piledriving tackle, but Sheffield were beginning to claw their way back into the game, and when Parker was adjudged to have committed a high tackle and was shown a yellow card, with ten minutes remaining, they sensed that they could overturn Newport’s slender lead.
It was unfortunate for Parker, who since the Christmas break, has been one of Newport’s stand-out performers. He is a safe pair of hands under the restart kicks, solid in the scrum and one of the team’s go-to men, when it comes to making the hard yards. When Sheffield were awarded a penalty in front of the posts on thirty two minutes, they again spurned the certain three points on offer and took the scrum option. Why Newport elected not to move a three quarter in to pack down on the flank and negate the first point of threat, will no doubt be discussed at length, but there decision to pit seven against eight, was a costly one. Sheffield completely dominated the contest and with Newport’s forwards going backwards and in disarray, Sheffield got the all important try. The easiest of conversions gave them a two point lead at 15-13, one they would hold onto until the end of the game. Newport did have chances in the final five minutes. The dancing feet of Maule got him close, Morgan attempted to bulldoze his way over and was inches short, and the ball was pilfered from Brown, with Newport camped on the Sheffield line. That one will be watched and rewatched, but at the end of the day, all teams have decisions that they feel were controversial. Refereeing is rarely if ever, an exact science, and Newport have to get to a stage where they can execute their plays with accuracy and take advantage of their dominance, whereby the rub of the green not favouring them occasionally, is taken out of the equation.
Hats off to Sheffield. They had done their homework on Newport, and when you only concede an average of eight points per game at home, you are very difficult to beat. Defence can be king and win games, Sheffield have shown that this Saturday. With the remainder of the top six all registering wins, it’s close run affair for second spot now. Newport, although now seven points adrift of Scunthorpe, still have three points on Luctonians and four points on Broadstreet. There are certainly several more twists and turns, before this campaign is done. There is a free weekend, before we welcome Bournville to the Old Show Ground. We have had some battles with them over recent years and their narrow loss to Luctonians on Saturday, indicates the danger they can pose.
Team: Grass, Cowell(C), Wells, Buckley, Parker, Purchase, Price, Robinson, Brown, Leonard, Haselock,Maule, Vaka, Himbury, Perry, Wilson, Roach, Morgan