Harpenden just came up short in a tough game against Eton Manor with strong sun raising the temperatures as high as 24 degrees. However, their pain was partly assuaged by picking up a losing bonus point and a try bonus point which means they are fifth in London One North.
The east Londoners started strongly and had Harps under heavy pressure for the first 15 minutes, although resolute defending meant that they only had three penalty points to show for the pressure. Number eight Michael Goode had to leave the pitch following a bang to the head, resulting in some reorganisation in the forwards with Ed Preston moving from six to eight, Al Whittaker coming on in the second row and Tom Rolfe moving to six. Harps then hit a purple patch with inside centre Conor McClean scoring two tries in quick succession, each try following a succession of strong pick and drive plays by the forwards.
Tom Sweeney, deputising for regular fly-half Ollie Mann, who had picked up a thumb injury last week, was in good kicking form, adding the extra two points for all of Harps tries. This skill should prove a valuable asset in many games this season. The Eton Manor kicker was also in good form and got all his kicks during the game too. Hopes that Harps might capitalise on their momentum were not realised, as the home side came back again and were rewarded with a good try down the right wing and another penalty, leaving the score at 13-14 at half time.
The second half started with Harps under pressure again and a further try was conceded. Harps scrum half Fred Gulliford had taken a couple of heavy knocks and the referee would not allow him to continue, so Henry Simcott had to take over that role. Although unaccustomed to that position, this afforded Simcott the opportunity to score his first try for the senior side in a league match, when he was able to pick up at the base of a ruck close to the line and dart over to restore Harps’ one-point lead.
Unfortunately, they could not hold on to the lead as Manor kicked another penalty and then got a try to give them a 30-21 lead with just 10 minutes to go. Harps did fight back and following a maul from five metres out, drove over to allow Ryan Gue, who had replaced Rolfe mid-way through the second half, to touch down. Manor were literally fighting to hold on for the win with Harps hooker, Pete Sims, getting a black eye from a punch thrown during a maul. With time running down, Manor gave away a series of penalties for infringements. This eventually gave Harps a difficult kick from the half-way line to win with the last play of the game, but the kick went wide of the posts and the home side prevailed by two points.
Skipper Oli Lacey, who had led the team from the front throughout, said: “While obviously disappointed with the result, I’m pleased with the effort and general attitude displayed by the players. There were a lot of positives to take from the game.” He was pleased to welcome back double try scorer McClean after a couple of years away and Jimmy Speirs returning after a lengthy absence with injury. He also pointed out that Harps had blooded a number of new players for the match, Luke Govier at full-back, Matt Jillians at open side flanker and back Will Hague Blundy. Jillians’ performance in particular was impressive.
With a total of seven changes to the line up from the previous week, the strength in depth right across the senior squad will be important during the season.
Harps face another tough test this Saturday when they host Colchester, last season’s league runners-up. Kick-off is at 3:00pm.