Having secured second position in the league winning all but three league matches all season, Haywards Heath RFC gained promotion from Sussex Spitfire League 1 for the first time of asking by winning a play-off against Shepherd Neame Kent 1 opposition, Old Williamsonians, at Whitemans Green on Saturday.
Following a close encounter, where Heath’s defence and its supporters nerves were tested right to the final whistle, Heath won 13-8 much to the delight of a big home crowd and an exhausted but extremely happy rugby squad.
The match kicked off in bright sunshine and within the first five minutes Heath won a penalty from almost the halfway line and decided to have a go at putting the first points on the board. The kick from Peter Kerins went just wide but the intent of a committed Heath side was clear - score at every opportunity and keep the pressure on the opposition.
Old Williamsonians were proving to be excellent at the breakdown, securing a number of turnovers from seemingly impossible positions, but Heath kept to its game plan and closed down Old Williamsonians when the opposition secured the ball, piling on the pressure and securing a knock-on or handling error that gave Heath the early advantage in terms of possession. It took 15 minutes for Heath to turn that possession into points on the board and it came as a huge relief when Heath Number 8 Ben Davis used his strength and determination to score.
Although the conversion was missed as kicking conditions became increasingly challenging, Heath put the first points on the board and were ahead 5-0. Old Williamsonians continued to dominate the loose ball and the turnovers were totting up against Heath despite some strong tackling from the forwards, but once Heath had possession they were unstoppable and following a great break and fabulous run from Matt Duncan that broke through a number of Old Williamsonians tackles, Jack Best sped over to score in the corner making it 10-0 to Heath.
Heath now had the momentum and looked like adding to their total by scoring under the posts when an unfortunate knock-on due to last-ditch Old Williamsonians defence gave the scrum to Old Williamsonians right by the try line and they cleared well from the resulting set piece. But Heath were looking to score more points and with a penalty secured in front of the posts, Heath opted for the 3 points and a good kick from Kerins in the swirling and ever-increasing wind took the score to 13-0. After the restart Old Wiliamsonians received a yellow card for a late tackle and with half time fast approaching, Heath attempted another long penalty kick from the half way line. The ball just missed the uprights and the teams went into half time with the score at 13-0 to Heath.
By now the weather began to play its part as it was no longer spring-like conditions, more autumnal with persistent rain and an unpredictable wind affecting play. Unfortunately for Heath the officials from the London Society of Referees who were miced up for the match, judged a Heath player to have committed an offence and having shown a yellow card to the opposition just before half time, decided to do the same to Heath, handing the advantage to Old Williamsonians for a short period of time. Heath worked hard to defend as Old Williamsonians tried to seize their chance and, at the second time of trying, their number 10 slotted over a penalty and got points on the board for the Kent side 13-3.
The match then entered a period of continued Heath pressure with some fantastic driving mauls, winning lineouts and possession which looked like Heath had the winning line within their grasp. However a terrific run from the Old Williamsonians, followed by Heath losing the ball on their lineout, led to a penalty to the opposition in front of the Heath posts. Heath did not retreat quickly enough and the referee gave Heath another yellow card, and in so doing gave Old Williamsonians all the motivation they needed to make the most of the space wide on the pitch and score a try of their own. The conversion was missed and the score stood at 13-8 as the match entered the last 8 minutes. Heath tried to keep their composure with victory within their grasp but another violation at the breakdown led to yet another yellow card from the referee and Heath were down to 13 men for the remainder of the match.
The last 5 minutes were very tense as Old Williamsonians tried to use their numerical advantage and Heath put in some last-ditch tackles. Fortunately for Heath, Old Williamsonians were also feeling the pressure and following what seemed like an eternity to the Heath supporters, a conference between the referee and the linesman led to another yellow card for Old Williamsonians and the match was now down to 13 men versus 14. Heath secured the ball at the lineout and played the possession game working phase after phase as the clock ran down. Old Williamsonians then won the ball but the Heath forwards used every last ounce of energy to drive the ball carrier into touch and the final whistle went. Heath had won 13-8 and in doing so had won promotion to London 3 South East next season.
The match was played in good spirit, particularly given the rewards at stake in terms of promotion, but in true rugby fashion both teams and their supporters enjoyed a friendly post-match celebration in the Heath Clubhouse where Heath’s Jack Best was awarded Man of the Match for a great performance in both attack and defence, particularly under the high ball. For Heath this was just reward for their efforts on and off the pitch over the last two seasons and to put the Club back where it belongs and secure its position in London 3 South East next season.
Heath squad: Sam Beckett; Will Purdy; Karl Wicking (Jack Bull); Dan Fergusson; Tom Burns; Huw Jenkins; Josh Salisbury (Chris Neill); Ben Davis; Brett Menefy; Peter Kerins (Captain); Jamie Diggle; Wilf Bridges (Marc Cashman); Jack Lucas; Mat Duncan (Roscoe Atkins); Jack Best. Coach: Jody Levett
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