When a visiting team arranges a match for a Friday evening to 'maximise drinking time' on tour, you know it will be fun. Waiting outside the Waterhall clubhouse for our first pre-season friendly home game (as our usual Hove pitches weren't ready), we watched with amusement as bewildered cabbies delivered group after group of boisterous and sozzled Salisbury players. We may well have been quietly sizing up our first straight opponents, but they seemed more interested in tea-bagging for some reason…
Down then to the changing rooms where the liveliness from the opponents was in contrast to our more measured preparations. Once on to the pitch for a long warm-up in the strong sunshine, everyone soaked up the friendly atmosphere. Word got round that there would be a 10 minute delay to kick-off (perhaps due to the traffic problems from the Seagulls at the Amex) and we would be playing only 30 minute halves, which may have been a relief on both sides.
Huddles followed, with determined speeches from captain Byron and vice-captain Paul. Unfortunately we had a slight disadvantage looking straight into the setting sun (which would not affect Salisbury in the second half). It was obvious from the off that this team were well-drilled and mobile. But mainly pissed! We had to absorb a lot of pressure straight away, but encouragingly did not concede a try in the first minute, which blighted our previous two matches. In fact, after 10 mins, Ian Bowden, one of our two Steelers ringers for the evening, blitzed through a number of players from deep and touched down to give us our first ever lead in a match. Agonisingly though, the conversion went across the posts but it was a good attempt.
For Salisbury, this was the only aberration of the first half, as they piled on the pressure with territorial gain and possession which we struggled to turn over. Two tries followed through gaps and missed tackles, but luckily no conversions followed. 5-10 down at half-time, we were definitely in with a shout.
Changes were made to personnel for the second half, with more shape evident in the back play and pods formed by the forwards, recycling the ball multiple times on a couple of occasions. However, there was little we could do to stop one of their props barrelling over for a seemingly unexpected try (and conversion), followed quickly by another. But from our line-out, the ball was batted down accurately by Louis to scrum-half Ashley, who set the play up for the backs to shine. It was quick. And therefore it should come as no surprise that it resulted in a great run and try from Dan, again from deep. No chance for the conversion though due to it being on the touchline. A final try from Salisbury but pressure from a Serpent to ground the ball some way before the posts meant a missed conversion, so keeping the final score down to 10-27 in their favour. Great distribution throughout by Ashley resulted in the Man of the Match award, as voted for by Salisbury.
Four points of note:
1) Three (possibly four) of the backs had no possession in the first half, but this improved in the second.
2) Man on man marking was a weakness, resulting in large gaps for our opponents to exploit – which they did.
3) Scrums took too long to disengage once the ball was in play – which may explain 2).
4) Need to understand the importance of making conversions as easy for ourselves as possible and as difficult for our opponents as possible.
Nevertheless, we continue to make big strides forward, and it was good to 'blood' new players in the Serpent family (Lee, Dan M, Richard and Damian) as well as benefit from the wisdom of our ringers (Jordan and Ian B) for the evening and calming instructions from our captain and vice-captain throughout. In particular, we should be very proud of Dan's try, as it involved half the team beforehand from a set piece. Although we ultimately lost, we by no means disgraced ourselves and instead gained respect from our opponents. They played with a wonderful spirit and this continued to the celebrations afterwards – gay-themed punishments which they cannot deny they enjoyed far too much! Fifty shades of GrAY indeed…