Winnington Park 2nds 12 Helsby 15
By Chris Johnson
Helsby make it two wins out of two and stay top of the table...
Helsby’s first game on the road this season took them to nearby rivals Winnington Park, and despite seven enforced changes from last week's opening victory over Whitchurch, the village side once again acquitted themselves well and came away with the four points.
Setting out their intentions early, Helsby’s pack quickly asserted their dominance and after only five minutes, a rolling maul along the right wing deep inside the home team’s 22m set up the perfect platform for scrum-half, Francisco Latta. Switching from Fullback and embarking on only his first full season playing Senior rugby for Helsby, Latta brilliantly dummied from the base of the maul and caught the Park defence cold to give Helsby an early lead. That set the pattern for the opening passages of play and Helsby almost extended their lead still further after ten minutes, when Scott Tunstall went on a barnstorming run - Latta again attempting a show and go, only this time to be thwarted. The next quarter gave a good indication of how tight the afternoon would be, however, with Helsby continuing to win the forward exchanges, but Park’s defence holding tight. In a rare threat to the visitor’s line, debutant Fullback, James Lillico showed calm presence and a good degree of confidence in running the ball out of defence before clearing his lines, but it was great play once more by the Helsby forwards that was to extend Helsby’s lead. The breakthrough came after 27 minutes when Helsby’s pack once again showed its dominance in the scrum and back-row Iain Lednor – one of the leading figures in last season’s promotion campaign – picked up from the base to dive over from short range. The remainder of the first half, saw little leeway given by both teams, but on the stroke of half-time a loose break by substitute second row, Dan Haggett set up a promising field position for Helsby, vice-captain Matty Burns then making further vital inroads but squandering the opportunity to increase Helsby’s lead still further when the overlap outside looked the better choice. Half-time : Winnington Park 2nds 0 Helsby 10.
After the re-start, Helsby’s forwards continued where they had left off before the break, however, the face of the game was to change after 50 minutes when the loss of one of the Winnington Park front-row meant that the match had to switch to uncontested scrums. With Helsby’s injury toll starting to mount – Sam Warburton, Kev Weir, Lednor, Rob Council, Kiel Dunbar and Matty Lee all struggling to shake off knocks – Park’s stronger backline started to make more ground. Poor discipline from Helsby then saw them concede a penalty in their own half and from the subsequent play, the home side broke away to notch up the first points Helsby had conceded in more than two hours of League rugby this season. Within 5 minutes, however, Helsby had restored their 10 point advantage – once again, their forwards making the difference – when hooker, Darren Brownlow dove over from short range. Captain Chris Goggin again failed with the conversion attempt - conditions this week being far less favourable than in last week’s opening encounter which had seen him convert a perfect 9 from 9 – however, in open play Goggin executed a perfect kicking game, which gave Helsby a good territorial advantage and kept Park on the back foot.
With Helsby having now lost Latta to a head injury, the home side started to gain the advantage, however, Helsby continued to threaten and good work from Lillico almost paid off – stand-in winger, Paul Dempsey almost going over in the left-hand corner and Park’s defence holding strong against Helsby’s efforts to recycle the ball. With 10 minutes remaining, Winnington Park then scored what threatened to be a decisive try, hacking the ball down Helsby’s exposed left wing – Dempsey unable to clear and being beaten for pace following another kick through. The successful conversion took Park to within 3 points of Helsby and this set up a nerve-wracking end to what had been an absorbing contest. And after Latta's opening try, it was perhaps fitting that it was another one of Helsby’s youngsters – Fullback Lillico – who made the crucial tackle when he was Helsby’s last line of defence in the face of a final, desperate Park attack. Successfully securing their own ball in two final lineouts within their own 22m, Helsby ended the game showing great game-management – their forwards taking it in turns for a final series of carries to wind the clock down before Lednor booted the ball into touch at the final whistle to secure a hard-fought, but extremely deserved victory. Full-Time : Winnington Park 2nds 12 Helsby 15.
It’s an old adage in rugby that forwards win games and backs decide by how much and the narrow margin of this win said everything about the encounter. Having travelled with only a 17-man squad, it was a heroic performance by every player and demonstrated that - on its day - this is a team that is very much capable of holding its own in Division Two as the early table shows.
This coming Saturday, Helsby return to Home action - facing Crewe & Nantwich 2nds in a combined League/Cup Fixture. Kick-off 3.00pm at the club's Chester Road pitches, alongside Tesco Helsby - spectators welcome. Helsby 2nds meanwhile start their own League campaign, with a trip over the water to play Mossley Hill.