Pictured, above: Man-of-the-match Ian Kench, sponsored by Surrey Psychology, with mascots Ollie Bellis and Callum Cross
POINTS FEST AT MOLESEY ROAD AS ESHER EDGE HAWKS IN PULSATING HOME OPENER
@MSSher1 at Molesey Road
ESHER RUGBY (13) 40
Convs: Daniels (4)
Pens: Daniels (4)
HENLEY HAWKS (23) 30
Tries: Awcock, Stapley, Andre
Convs: Wells (3)
Pens: Wells (3)
Esher opened up their 2013-2014 home campaign with an enthralling, hard-fought win over a Henley Hawks side that won plenty of admirers on a calm, early autumn afternoon at Molesey Road.
After a patchy performance against Richmond in the previous week’s season opener, the Esher management had called on their men to show more in attack against the newly-promoted Hawks.
The early signs were good. The pack shoved off their opposite eight with a thunderous heave to lay down a marker, before Luke Daniels put his side in front with a straightforward penalty.
Henley, fresh from a thumping win over Tynedale upon their return to Level Three rugby, were struggling to live with the intensity and experience of their hosts, who were looking much more cohesive after a rather stuttering showing in the encounter at the Athletic Ground.
Danny Wells, the nominated kicker after injury ruled out first-choice James Comben late in the week, briefly restored parity but it wasn’t long before the inevitable opening Esher try arrived.
Daniels injected a shot of pace, before quick ball saw Tom Whelan tee up Cameron Gentles. There was no stopping the lock forward from ten metres out and the New Zealander crashed through a couple of tackles to register his first score of the season.
That should have been the catalyst for the men in black to stretch away and put the game to bed, but, as the Hawks warmed to their task and the confidence in their ranks grew, the tide turned.
Wells added a second penalty, before last season’s National Two South champions scored a brilliant try with a quarter of the game gone.
The prolific Xavier Andre scythed through the Esher wide defence, and put former Newport flyer Alan Awcock in the clear. The new recruit finished expertly, and, with the Hawks back in the game, it made for an excellent spectacle in the remaining hour.
Daniels and Wells traded penalties as the ferocity rose palpably, and both sides were keen to move it wide at every opportunity.
As they say, though, it doesn’t matter how you score – they all count. The obvious threat from Nigel Dudding’s group was coming from the back-three, but their second try came from close quarters, and from another heavy scorer.
A perfectly executed driving maul five metres from the Esher whitewash resulted in No.8 Robbie Stapley stretching to dot down, sending the visiting support into raptures. That extended the Henley lead to 23-13 heading into the break, and it was clear that if the home side didn’t score first after the break, the task might become insurmountable.
If there was one key moment on which the game turned, it was undoubtedly the introduction of the vastly experienced US international Robbie Shaw, and the summer signing from Richmond turned the game on its head.
Shaw immediately quickened up proceedings, forcing Henley onto the back foot and the wily old campaigner scored his first try since returning to Molesey Road minutes into the half. Sniping and harassing around the fringes, he scampered over after his movement created a hole in the visiting defence, and that proved to be the catalyst for an Esher purple patch.
Lovely feet from Whelan saw him put away Mike Macfarlane, who couldn’t quite reach the line, but did find Neil Sweeney on his shoulder. The hooker scored his first ever try for the Club, despite being almost ever present under Ollie Smith, and it would be fair to say it was a hugely popular effort, judging by the reaction from a relatively small, but loud, home crowd.
Stewart Maguire, complete with a curly new mop cultivated over the summer break, battered over for the fourth, and bonus point try, as his side opened up daylight at 34-23.
Refusing to buckle, the Hawks jolted back into action. Andre fully exploited an overlap to saunter over unchallenged – he’ll definitely be a name to keep an eye on this year; excellent rugby brain as well as a neat skill set – and once again, you’d have been a brave man to call the outcome at that stage.
412 hardy souls were being treated to a good, old-fashioned ding-dong, as both teams continued to throw everything at it in order to fashion a conclusive lead. Another crucial turning point came with the binning of Henley full-back Neil Baggett, for killing a Whelan pass after the Esher playmaker had engineered some space from nothing, and with it came another three points for Daniels.
Spencer Sutherland and O’Grady should have scored after that, but for a couple of unforced errors, and though Henley continued to give it absolutely everything, especially in the backs, it wasn’t to be. Daniels notched up a fourth penalty to finally put the issue beyond doubt, robbing the Hawks of a bonus point their endeavours much deserved.
Ricky Nebbett, along with fellow senior coaches Craig Chalmers and Chris Kibble, will take his troops up north next weekend, to face Blaydon, who finished a place below them in third last year. The Crow Trees based club have endured a tough opening couple of weeks, losing heavily at home to Loughborough Students, before being edged out by city rivals Tynedale today, 25-24.
Kick-off in Newcastle is at 2pm.
*Dave Chalcraft's Cardinals continued their strong start to the year with a second successive win, as they beat Henley's second string, the Bulls, in the day's early kick-off.
The Cardinals have no game next weekend, but welcome Old Abanians 2s on Saturday, 28th September to Molesey Road. Kick-off in that one is at 2pm.
Henley Hawks: Baggett; Andre, Nutt (c), Wells, Awcock; Allen, Carter; Maddocks, Penny, Manning; Clements, McNally; Woodward, Dwyer, Stapley.
Replacements: Brennan for Maddocks (50), Haynes for Andre (78), Long for Woodward (69).
Not used: Bloxham, Bruce
Sin bin: Baggett (64)
Ref: Mr. Shane Lewis