Rugby: Harlow under-18s impress with never-say-die commitment

Rugby / Mon 26th Feb 2024 at 08:45am

FACING tough opposition away from home, it was important that Harcroft made a strong start in their Sunday afternoon match-up against Hitchin. The team clearly didn’t get the memo, conceding three sloppy tries in the opening 10 minutes and slipping to a 19-0 deficit.

There were mitigating factors. Depleted by an unusually high number of absences, several Harcroft players found themselves asked to fill unfamiliar positions. Hitchin had loaned the away side three players to level up the numbers, but that added to the feeling of incoherency. Cold weather after an extended journey no doubt also contributed to Harcroft’s failure to get out of the blocks.

Still, while it took time for Harcroft to find their feet, they slowly began to work their way into the game. Strong tackling from Alex, Grace, Tilly and Charlotte began to push Hitchin’s attackers back, despite their pace and strength. Abi gave a hint of the side’s attacking potential with a neat little grubber kick that broke the Hitchin lines and secured valuable territory. Josie took on the opposition and repeatedly made ground. Tasha made several breaks.

Nevertheless, Hitchin continued to rack up the points, showing determination at the ruck to win a series of turnovers. Harcroft’s failure to engage quickly and strongly enough at the breakdown continued to cost them dearly. Three more Hitchin tries, one converted, saw the home team race into a 41-0 lead. Harcroft’s supporters began to grow increasingly concerned.

To their great credit, Harcroft’s heads did not drop. Despite playing into a stiff Easterly breeze, they continued to push for openings. Josie and Lily made strong runs into the Hitchin half, before Edith came close to finally putting some Harcroft points on the board.

Hitchin’s defence looked as if it would hold out until half-time, but with a few seconds left on the clock, Martha and Grace combined to release one of Hitchin’s loanee players whose pace took her clear. Harcroft’s breakthrough came at just the right moment, taking the score to 41-5 at the break – and sowing the first seeds of doubt in the opposition’s minds.

Even so, few could have predicted the remarkable turnaround that would take place in the second half of this match. Harcroft returned to the fray with an aggressive mindset that quickly paid dividends. Winning the ball back in their own 22, smart work released Edith, who ran most of the length of the pitch for Harcroft’s second try – and cut the deficit to 41-10.

That score was rapidly followed by another exciting move, also finished off by a Hitchin loanee, and coolly converted by Lily. Even better was to come moments later, as Tilly picked up the ball in her own half and powered through the Hitchin lines to score under the posts. Again, Lily converted with aplomb, taking the score to 41-24.

Not content with kicking for points, Lily continued to make her presence felt. Pushed back close to their own line, Hitchin won a penalty and attempted to clear, but Lily caught the ball cleanly before returning it with pace and grounding smartly. With the conversion good, the score was now 41-31 in Hitchin’s favour.

Harcroft began to scent a real chance of victory, playing with a confidence and spirit that had been completely missing in the first half of the match. Their brand of skilful passing rugby was easy on the eye, and every attack looked likely to produce more points. Charlotte and Josie broke several tackles. Tasha came close to reducing the lead even further but was held up close to the line.

Still, a free-flowing Hitchin side were not done either. The acceleration of their back line posed a threat throughout the match – missed tackles were always likely to be punished. And when Alex was forced off with a nasty knock, Harcroft also had to cope with the opposition’s numerical advantage. Hitchin’s pressure eventually paid off, with a well-worked converted try that extended their lead to 48-31.

Could Harcroft pick themselves up once more, late in the game after a punishing match in tough conditions? They continued to push hard, with Martha eventually showing strength to break clear. Hitchin’s defence just managed to catch her, but Tilly was on hand to pick up the ball and score a

gain, taking the score to 48-36.

Another try quickly followed from the away side, with Tilly scoring once again after three phases of Harcroft attack. The handling errors that had characterised the early exchanges of the match were now replaced with slick passing and patient recycling of the ball – and at 48-41, Harcroft were in with a chance.

Time, however, was running out. And while Harcroft pushed for a score that would have tied the match, Hitchin’s defence held strong. Winning the ball back at the ruck, the home side kicked for touch and the referee blew for full-time. Harcroft had come close to a remarkable recovery, but the fight-back fell just short.

Still, this was a hugely impressive performance from a Harcroft team missing so many players. They showed huge character to stay in the game and to fight back after such a tough start.

Above all, this was a team effort. Coaches Andy and Simon, whose uplifting half-time talk spurred Harcroft on, chose not to select a player of the game – while multiple players showed real quality and effort, the team fought their way back into this match as a collective, rather than depending on any one individual. That togetherness holds real promise for the rest of the season.

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