Last Saturday Burgess Hill RFC, the Sussex All Blacks played host to Sheppey RFC from Kent division 1.
Both teams finished second in their respective leagues and as such faced each other in a play off with the winner earning promotion to London South East division 3.
With Burgess Hill winning and scoring more bonus points than Sheppey home advantage went to the men in black.
This was the biggest game the All Blacks have hosted and as a result a large and vocal partisan crowd were in attendance.
From the kick off No.8 Dave Wattam made an uncharacteristic mistake dropping the ball and turning over the ball to the Islanders. Sheppey smelt blood and battered the Hill line for 5 minutes but the All Blacks defence stood strong with second rows Cris Leahy and Tim Daniel making tackle after tackle.
At one ruck inside centre Jordan Sayers Jackled the ball before passing to scrum half Massimo Hiller who passed to fly half Rhys Clarke. Clarke dummied his back line and stepped his opposite man running on 30 metres before being cut down 40 metres from the line. Despite Captain and hooker Ben Dewey clearing the ruck the referee awarded the Islanders a penalty for Hill holding on. Up stepped Sheppey’s point machine centre who slotted the kick from 40+ metres for a 0-3 lead.
From the restart Sheppey knocked on whilst competing for the ball. At the scrum the Kent side showed their power pushing the All Blacks backwards where the referee awarded another controversial penalty. Once again the Sheppey 13 stepped up to slot the penalty to lead 0-6.
From the restart blind side flanker Adam Rezazadeh collected the kick off and passed to Hiller who in turn passed to Clarke before passing to full back and head coach Owain Jenkins at full tilt. OJ ran past the Sheppey defence before passing inside to outside centre Luke Mortell. Mortell ran on up into the Sheppey 22 before passing to winger Max Wilson who juggled the ball before losing control 15 metres out. Despite the mistake it was now evident that the All Blacks were happy to attack from anywhere and had the players to open up the Islanders.
Another break up the wing by OJ and Mortell moments later saw winger Ant Baldwin sprint away before being tackled 30 metres out. At the break down Sheppey killed the ball giving away a penalty. Clarke stepped up and kicked the penalty 3-6. With 15 left on the clock Clarke had another shot at goal but this time the ball shaved the upright.
Sheppey turned on their power game in the last 15 and battered the All Blacks line. Following a penalty by Hill they kicked to corner where their lineout catch and drive was excellent resulting in their powerful No.8 dotting down for the unconverted score to lead 3-11.
With minutes left on the clock they once more kicked for the corner and set up a drive. This time the men in black repelled the attack but gave away a penalty for coming round the side of the ruck. As the All Blacks looked puzzled at the decision the Islanders open side flanker tapped and scored in the corner. The Sheppey goal kicker slotted from near the touchline to lead 3-18.
The last minutes of the half the All Blacks were camped in the Sheppey 22 but could not get over the white wash.
At 3-18 down at half time and Sheppey having the wind in the second half some of the crowd groaned. The All Blacks however regrouped and were confident they could turn this around.
The men in black took the game to Sheppey in the first 5-10 minutes earning 2 penalties which Clarke slotted to close the gap to 9-18.
Sheppey then came back powering into the All Blacks 22. At the ruck Adam Rez stripped the ball and passed to Hiller who in turn passed to Sayers. Sayers went on a mazey run before going to ground. At the ruck Hiller passed to lose head prop Paul Hasib at full tilt who carried for 5 metres. Leahy came into the ruck like a wrecking ball cleaning out 3 Sheppey defenders as if they were cardboard cutouts. Hiller switched play hitting tight head prop and speed demon Will Arney who broke a tackle and ran on 10 metres. At the ruck Hiller passed to Clarke who in turn passed to Sayers who found Max Wilson at full tilt. Wilson stood up the full back before powering over in the corner. Clarke missed the extras from out wide, 14-18.
The All Blacks now smelt blood and brought on prop Jon Phillpot and second row Simon Eyre for Arney and Leahy. At a scrum 10 metres out the Black pack started to assert themselves and pushed the Sheppey pack backwards. Wattam picked up at 8 before passing inside to Rez who went inches short. At the ruck Hiller passed to Clarke who popped to Sayers at full tilt who powered over the line for the unconverted score to lead for the first time 19-18.
The All Blacks were now in total control and it wasn’t long before another score came. After another back line break Wilson cut in off his wing powering towards the line where a pass was forced resulting in a knock on. At the scrum the black pack turned the screw and the ball flew out of the back of the Sheppey scrum. Hiller showed his Artful Dodger like tendencies and picked up the ball before standing up the Sheppey fly half before diving over the line. Clarke added the extras for a 26-18 lead with 10 to go.
Sheppey came back at the men in black and following a number of forward drives they passed wide where their robust and blisteringly quick winger scored an unconverted try in the corner, 26-23.
With minutes left on the clock the All Blacks showed some indiscipline resulting in a penalty 35 metres out. Thankfully for Hill the Sheppey centre miss kicked. At the 22 restart OJ kicked long. The Sheppey full back collected and went for an outside break where he was scythed down by Mortell who then won the penalty. The referee blew his whistle to signify the end of the game.
The crowd rushed onto the pitch to celebrate with their heroes winning the biggest game ever played at Burgess Hill.
The Sussex All Blacks have come along way since being relegated from LSE3 last term upping their fitness and skill level. They know only too well how much of a step up LSE3 is however and that they have a lot of preparation to do ahead of next September. They are buoyed however by their strength in depth across their 3 senior teams and ability to attract new players on a weekly basis.
If anyone would like to join Mid Sussex’s fastest growing club then please contact Director of Rugby Ross Hallifax on 07941 016836 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
With 2 touring team games, a club tour to Benidorm, a full sevens programme and a World Record attempt, the Sussex All Blacks have a full summer ahead of them.