Rugby Union: Ampthill charge too strong for Harrogate

Harrogate Rugby against Ampthill. (1502072AM1)
Harrogate Rugby against Ampthill. (1502072AM1)

Harrogate rugby felt the full force of National Two North leaders Ampthill and District’s forwards in a 26-9 defeat at Claro Road on Saturday.

Harrogate competed expertly with the brawn of Amphill in the first half, and Joe Rowntree’s boot gave them a six-point advantage at the interval.

However, the visitors’ strength in the pack told as they roared back with 23 points in a one-sided second half to end Gate’s seven match winning run.

It was a clear representation of the 26-point gap between the sides, but it also gave Harrogate’s director of rugby enough to be proud about, after a much-improved performance from the 53-7 thumping that took place at Ampthill in October.

Following two weeks without action due to the freezing weather, both teams enjoyed a glorious afternoon under sunshine in Harrogate as a large crowd came out to watch in-form pair battle it out.

Ampthill, in their first season in National Two North, headed into the match with a fearsome record.

They led the table following 17 victories in 21 matches, and had claimed the highest number of points in matches by more than a century of scores.

To tackle the sizable threat, Harrogate replaced flanker Nathan Smith with head coach Kerry Wood after the former dislocated his ankle in last weekend’s second team victory over Wharfedale.

Lewis Minikin retained his spot in the centre after overcoming a hamstring strain.

It was the hosts that carved out the best field position in the opening exchanges, with Callum Irvine smacking an excellent crossfield kick deep into the visitors territory - the ball bouncing twice before hitting touch.

Ampthill’s powerhouse pack clearly had an advantage and their danger was evident from the first line-out, which secured a 15-metre advance from their own 22 metre line.

Jake Brady then showed Gate had their own brawn to offer as he surged through, and moments after his break, Rowntree was presented with the first penalty opportunity, slapping it through the sticks from just inside the 22.

Gate did well to restrict the territory the opposition forwards could operate in, with a number of weighty tackles by Willem Enslin, Brady and Andy Boyde, bringing a halt to the visiting bombardment.

Sam Bottomley then executed a fine line break to gift Harrogate a breather, but he spilled the ball forward in a tackle, before repeating the infringement minutes later.

The Gate forwards continued to disrupt Ampthill’s upfront gameplan with excellent defence.

Rowntree went wide with his second penalty attempt, this time on half-way, before he doubled the score after Ampthill were penalised for not rolling away.

Ampthill’s brutal approach eventually told, though, on 38 minutes when Gate’s scrum was penalised, and Joe Tarrant kicked over the resultant chance.

However, from the restart, referee Ben Blain penalised massive visiting forward Piano Hehea for entering the ruck off his feet, and Rowntree smashed home his third penalty to take Gate into the break impressively ahead.

The warning signs of Ampthill’s scrum strength had been fired though, and they were dominant throughout the second-half to storm back.

Gate could have made more of another fine Irvine clearance kick on 43 minutes, when Luke Edwards and Minikin allowed Ampthill full-back Karim Lynch to expertly wriggle away from a tight situation on the right flank.

But it was problems at the scrum that flawed Gate, though, and Ampthill earned a second penalty, kicked by Tarrant, to narrow the gap five minutes into the half.

Another penalty followed suit shortly after, with Enslin caught holding on too long after he was pinned at the back of the scrum.

The resultant kick to the corner led to a fierce rolling maul by Ampthill’s pack with the ball touched down under a melee of players, Tarrant converting.

The lead was extended by Ampthill’s fly-half following another penalty awarded at the scrum, but Gate continued to probe with their adventurous backs, and Bottomley’s surge through left Luke Edwards heading for the corner, only to be stopped in his tracks and dragged into touch.

However, defensive discipline remained an issue against Ampthill’s crunching runs, and Kyle Dench was sent to the sin bin by Blain, as the visitors pressured.

Tarrant kicked the three points on offer, however, his position at fly-half had often been under-used as the forwards often chose to barge their way forward.

The second-half turnaround was completed with ten minutes to go with another forwards score from another hefty rolling maul down the left. Tarrant completed a perfect afternoon with the boot to net the conversion.

All was not lost for Gate, though, and Aspinall’s men searched for a consolation try in the closing stages. But they were unable to break through for a final act, and they were left with worry etched on their faces as star fly-half Irvine twisted his knee in the final minute and required lengthy treatment at the final whistle.

The Scottish youth player will be a doubt for selection in Harrogate’s forthcoming tie atSedgley Park, a team they beat 21-19 in November.