Conditions for this ninth round of London South East 2 fixtures were not pleasant as Heath welcomed Beckenham RFC to Whitemans Green, writes Phil Herbert.
Torrential overnight rain coupled with heavy showers on the morning of the match had turned an autumn pitch into a mid-winter one in a matter of hours, with standing water and heavy ground making a running rugby spectacle unlikely.
At the start of the day Heath were sitting one place above the visitors in fifth place in the table, but they knew they faced a tough game against a side who had been averaging over 25 points a game so far this season, with their only defeats coming in close encounters against the four top of the table sides. Heath were fielding another changed side with a number of regular players either away at internationals or injured, but once again coach Matt Hawkes was able to call on some experienced replacements from his ever-increasing senior squad to take the field.
As anticipated Beckenham were straight into the home side from the whistle with a game plan that used their forward pack and big ball carriers to repeatedly crash up the middle. Whilst Heath defended this early surge with quick line speed and ferocious tackling, they were unable to spend any significant time on the ball themselves. As the visitors battered away to dominate possession, neither side made much headway and the game was being played largely between the two 10 metre lines. With quarter of an hour gone a scrum put in to Heath just inside their own half didn’t appear to be a platform from which a score might come. Heath’s number 9 George Davies had other ideas. After initially attempting to make a break down the narrow side of the scrum he turned back towards his own posts before ghosting through a gap between the opposition flyhalf and back row and beating the blind side winger on the outside to score a fantastic solo try in the corner. An early 5-0 lead to Heath.
Beckenham came roaring back with more big carries from their man mountain Hagrid lookalike taking them up into Heath territory. An offside infringement from Heath saw Beckenham kick a penalty and take the score to 5-3. That was the wake-up call they needed and the Heath forwards decided to flex their muscles from the restart. Quick ball on the halfway line was kicked cross field by fly half Peter Kerins and collected by right winger Jamie Diggle who drew the cover and slipped a pass to Jack Lucas who, despite the insecure conditions underfoot, put down the accelerator and outpaced the last defenders to score under the posts. Kerins converted for Heath to lead 12- 3.
Beckenham were back on the offensive again and from a line out just outside the Heath 22 they moved the ball to the middle of the park for another crash ball from their forwards and on the next phase moved the ball wide left for a well worked try in the corner to pull the score back to 12-8. Heath were still ahead but had lost the momentum they had created for much of match so far.
Heath spent the remainder of the half in the opposition 22 but were unable to turn the territory advantage or a number of penalties into points and Beckenham’s close quarter defence held out - although they were lucky not to lose a man to the bin for a no arms tackle close to their own line. So at half time the score stood at 12 -8 to Heath and it was still all to play for. With the big Beckenham pack turning around to play down the hill Heath knew that their defensive sets were going to have be well organised.
The second half followed a similar pattern to the first, with the Heath pack working overtime to contain the Beckenham runners and neither side initially threatening to score. A yellow to Heath for a high tackle meant that the visitors were able to gain a bit of momentum, but once again the home side’s defence was equal to all that was thrown at it and Heath gradually manoeuvred their way out of the danger zone. With the Heath bench on to bring fresh legs they started to dominate territory.
After further Heath pressure and with 20 minutes to go, Beckenham didn’t clear properly from a scrum on their own 5 yard line and the ball was turned over. A series of controlled phases of “pick & go” from the Heath forwards moved them closer and closer to the visitors’ try line where back row Josh Salisbury sauntered through for a try and a 17 -8 lead. Again Beckenham tried to fight back with a renewed sense of urgency but Heath were equal to it in all areas with their tackling remaining accurate and their greater fitness showing in their speed to the ball.
With under 5 minutes remaining a break from Robbie Fotheringham in his own half took play into Beckenham territory and the ball was quickly worked away from the breakdown and out to Lucas who scorched down the right side of the pitch and returned the favour of a try scoring pass to Diggle who roared in under the posts to huge cheers from the crowd. Kerins knocked over the extras and there was daylight between the sides with the score standing at 24-8 to Heath.
The final whistle went in the gathering gloom with both sets of players barely distinguishable from each other given the amount of mud now coating their kit. A great win for Heath which, given scores elsewhere, moves them up to third place in the league. Notwithstanding the conditions this was a great game of rugby to watch with both sides giving maximum effort on a difficult surface. The Beckenham forwards were probably the biggest and best pack Heath have faced so far this season and the resilience in dealing with that threat shown by the entire Heath eight throughout the afternoon was immense.
This was a full team effort and despite the wet, the mud and the cold the Heath three quarters performance was equally epic with assured handling and quick feet creating three tries on a day that you would usually anticipate turning into a forwards’ slug fest. This was the first time this season that Beckenham had failed to take even a losing bonus point from a game and with Heath taking the full five points given their own try bonus it was an important win against another mid table side. Heath 1st XV Head Coach Matt Hawkes was delighted with his team’s performance and given that this was three wins on the bounce has promised the boys a steak dinner to celebrate.
Heath 1st XV squad : Jack Bull, Alex Wolfe, Sam Beckett, Steve Doku, Nick Miller, Duncan Liddell, Josh Salisbury, Wayne Williams, George Davies , Peter Kerins, Bobby Conroy-Smith, Robbie Fotheringham, Jack Lucas, Jamie Diggle, Sam Galbraith. Subs: Max Drage, Euan Greaves-Smith, Henry Warwick