Hemel inflict play-off nightmare
Valley Cougars fell at the first play-off hurdle in their debut Conference National season after a 40-18 loss to Hemel Stags.
Both teams traded tries in the first half until Dalton Grant’s superb finish in the corner had given the visitors a 22-18 lead, only to succumb to a season-ending defeat.
One of the Stags’ features this season has been to opt for two points from penalties and it was no different in the early exchanges – Ryan Butcher narrowly failing to hit the target with his first attempt at goal following a high tackle.
The Cougars countered with a great run by Steve Parry, but the Stags defence held firm and the hosts responded with a fine run by BJ Swindells.
On the quarter hour mark, Hemel received a penalty for offside ten metres out, took a quick tap and giant prop James Howitt charged over.
The Cougars were straight back on the attack and a last-ditch tackle from Butcher only halted a probing run by Shaun Owens.
The Stags were awarded back-to-back penalties, first for holding down, then for a high tackle, Butcher electing to kick for goal to make it 8-0.
Hemel was then punished for ripping the ball; Mark Jones using his bulk to get over the line despite two defenders hanging on to him. Paul Emanuelli added the conversion from in front of the uprights.
The Cougars attacked again but Parry was held up over the line. Visiting pressure paid off shortly after when, on the back of another penalty, Parry scooted over with Emanuelli edging the visitors further ahead 12-8 with the conversion.
On the stroke of half-time Hemel kept the ball alive on the fifth tackle and a high kick by Butcher held up in the wind, enabling BJ Swindells to collect and cross for a try.
Immediately after the interval, Hemel capitalised on a Cougars knock on and quick hands by Swindells got the ball to the right where Ash Fyson went over in the corner.
The Cougars pressed the Hemel line but Owens dropped the ball when in a good position and when Hemel were awarded a penalty in front of the posts, Butcher elected to successfully take the two.
Hard work by Alan Pope and Barrie Phillips put the Cougars in a good position and they worked the ball through the hands from the left to right and found winger Grant – who stepped inside before holding off a number of challengers to touch down in the corner.
With the Cougars now in front, concentration was pivotal, yet the Hemel restart was allowed to bounce into touch, gifting the hosts an attacking scrum deep in Cougars territory.
From that platform, Howitt powered his way over for his second despite the protests of Parry, who was adamant that the prop had been held up.
A jinking run by hooker Martyn Smith saw Hemel take the ball left and Olly O’Mara had acres of space to sprint over and extend the Stags’ lead.
Just after the hour, Butcher was again in the thick of it and kicked high on the last, Swindells catching the ball and quickly spinning it out to Fyson who went over by the flag.
As the try was awarded Mark Jones was sent off for foul and abusive language as emotions boiled over disputing that the Hemel kick chasers were deemed onside.
With eight minutes remaining, a penalty in front of the posts to the Stags for a ball steal saw Butcher again take the points on offer.
To rub further salt into the Cougars’ wounds, Barrie Phillips was sent to the sin bin in the dying moments for dissent.
1 Barry Jon Swindells
2 Christian Champion
3 Olly O’Mara
4 Mitch Henderson
5 Ashley Fyson
6 Jason Price
7 Ryan Butcher
8 James Howitt
9 Martyn Smith
10 Illija Radan
11 Eddie M’Baraga
12 Seb Ward
13 Tim Thompson-Essex
14 Jamie Goss
15 Gareth Swindells
16 Tim Stevens
17 Guy Aldam
Tries: Howitt (15, 53), BJ Swindells (39), Fyson (41, 62), O’Mara (57)
Goals: Butcher 8/10
1 Kevin James
2 Liam Watton
3 Phil Carleton
4 Steve Parry
5 Dalton Grant
6 Paul Emanuelli
7 Shaun Owens
8 Mark Jones
9 Rhodri Morris
10 Chris Davies
11 Barrie Phillips
12 Joe Burke
13 Alan Pope
14 Tylan Mafi
15 Steve Bray
16 Gareth Way
17 Karl Jones
Tries: M. Jones (26), Parry (35), Grant (51)
Goals: Emanuelli 3/3
Yellow card: Phillips
Red card: M. Jones
Referee: Tom Mather