And so it's here, after 12 weeks of pre-season training and three strong pre-season tests, the league is upon us. The Dolphins made a strong start to their Hampshire Prem campaign with a hard fought away victory over a strong, established Bognor 1st XV under a bright and hot sun on the firm ground at Hampshire Avenue. Perfect for running rugby.
The fixture saw competitive senior debuts for Adam Pollock (7), Will Brock (6), Sam Walker (9), Miles Sampson (14)*, Will Burrows (11), Sam Roberts (flanker) and Lewis Woolcombe (prop)*. The club also welcomed the return of the slick and gnarly campaigner, David Sweeney wearing the 10 shirt, against the club he had just left, as well as the return from a season away for Laurence Blackburn (13).
The pre-match talk by 'Kerry' Packer highlighted that despite pre-season success, more 'dog' was required, especially in this league, to get the result 'there's no pedigree without the dog!' was belted at the team, before captain Ed Gaught took over the final minutes before kick off. Kerry mentioned that he'd be happy with a 3-point victory; a very close prediction.
The game was an intense affair, with the Havant pack meeting Bognor's fire, with fire. A very strong defensive effort was required to nullify the large ball carrying pack of the seasider's and the game was certainly not one for the running-rugby purist, but one for the 'old school' forward dominated game.
Bognor barely ventured outside their 10 in width, using the heavy artillery of their front row and bulky back row forwards to crash the ball up, in the hope of bludgeoning their way through the Havant defence. Havant were equal to the challenge, with little given in yards, difficult to highlight anyone in particular with the whole pack putting in a tremendous shift. On the flip side, Havant sent our own Naval gun support in the guise of the wardroom front row, Bentley, Gaught and Blackburn making hard yards, joined by Brock, Pollock, Miller and Owens managing to break the first up tackle- Will 'Woosie' Owen, enjoying the most success. The Dolphins lineout, controlled by Nolan, disrupted opposition ball regularly and produced clean ball for the backs.
With the ball in hand away from the hard-working pack, however, Walker and Sweeney were under great pressure from the Bognor defence, seemingly 5m quicker than the most practiced blitz defence in the professional leagues, meaning that Sweeney was regularly tagged, limiting opportunities to release the potent backline and so the first half continued much in the same vain. Having been awarded a penalty on the 10m line, Simon Morgan confidently offered his services to Gaught, who chose to kick for the posts against a slight breeze, Morgan duly converting to put the first points on the board, much to the delight of the small, but vocal Havant support (Charlie W, Johnny Mellor and Havant dignitary, Darren Kingham Scott). Havant had two great opportunities to capitalise on heavy pressure via two lineouts in the Bognor 22, but lost both.
Little more happened in the first half, barring a horrific tackle administered by the returning Loz Blackburn, who savagely tackled a Bognor player to the ground by hitting the Bognor player's legs with his shoulder, wrapping his arms around the Bognor player's flailing leg. Fortunately, with the game lacking width, Havant sustained the pressure for the remainder of the half.
By the end of the first half, the Dolphins were in the ascendancy and the team were encouraged to keep working hard, keep patient and the points would follow. Miller was replaced by Roberts due to a injury; Brock moving to the row and Roberts to the flank. The Dolphins started the second half on the front foot, maintaining the intensity of the first, pushing into the Bognor half and after 5 minutes of forward carries, were awarded the second of 5 penalties, again, just inside the 10m line. Morgan removed his scrum cap and nodded to Gaught as if to say, 'it's business time'. Ed pointed to the sticks and Morgan again, calmly slotted to double the lead to 0-6.
Bognor responded only minutes later after being rewarded a penalty for an unknown infringement, choosing to kick, with success, to bring the game to 3-6. The rangy Lloyd Sampson and young, powerful prop Lewis Woolcombe were introduced to the pitch to replace Burrows and Blackburn respectfully to add new energy to the pitch. The arm-wrestle continued for the remainder of the half, bar another wonderfully executed penalty from Morgan to take the score to 3-9, the creative infringement signalling from the man in the middle became as much as part of the spectacle as two behemoth packs locking horns. Nearing the end, Havant were awarded the last of their 5 penalties and chose to kick to touch, much to the dislike of the referee who preferred to watch Morgan targeting the posts and thus reversed the penalty in Bognor's favour.
The game ended with Sweeney teed up for a drop goal to seal the win and take the bonus point from Bognor, however, having just pushing the ball the wrong side of the upright, the referee ended the game in disgust.
A warm welcome to the Hants Premier for the Dolphins, a taste of things to come; a great victory, beating a very strong and competent team, in Bognor who had only lost once at home last season. Many more challenges to come, as we face a league full of established 1st XVs, who have spent years playing together. Our next lies with our neighbours from the New Forest in New Milton on Saturday 21st. For those not travelling away to see the first XV play Beckenham, be sure to get to the Lane and cheer the Dolphins on!
Until next week....
by Graham Butterworth