A poor first half, followed by a spirited second half performance leave Leigh just short and with their first loss of the season.
On a bright autumnal sunny day, Leigh traveled 40 miles to Ashford for their second away game of the season. The Layabouts are no strangers to Ashford, having played their third team the season before with Leigh taking the spoils on both encounters, the East Kent club were itching to set the record straight with their second team on show. Ashford being a well-established and drilled club with one of the best ‘set of lads’ in the league, Leigh knew they had a formidable challenge ahead of them.
After a considerable physical warm-up, the message that was distilled upon the team was today, play for the man next to you. If he goes in for a tackle, you double tackle, if he makes a break, you break in support with him. Against a big club like Ashford, playing the Layabout way and supporting your fellow team mates was the key to winning the game… Oh and starting the first half strong.
The kickoff saw Leigh receive the ball high and deep in their 22 which was gathered well, but it wasn’t long until the penalty infringements started to occur. Leigh giving away a penalty for being off their feet resulted in Ashford opting for a shot at the posts (much to the dismay of Jake Hudson – ‘We’re not in the premiership lads!’). The kick missed, however unfortunately winger Bradley Clarkson knocked the ball on which resulted in a 5m scrum to Ashford. It was here that Ashford first seemed to demonstrate their strategy in the set piece, with a solid scrum, feeding the back line and a resulting score just wide of the posts. The kick not being added (5-0).
The game restarted with Ashford receiving whom immediately cleared the ball for the first lineout of the day. Pack leader Zach Merricks along with hooker Chris Taylor had the impending task of setting & delivering a solid lineout today, an area of Leigh’s game they have been working hard on over the summer. However with a slightly different lineup each week and without a second option jumper, could the progress be maintained? The first lineout was a success with Zach gathering and feeding off the top which unleashed the Leigh back line into attack. However further errors in the form of knock on’s and penalty infringements led to an early phase in the game that seemed only to consist of set piece’s. The scrum with front row Toby Laubach, Chris Taylor, & Layabout veteran Mark Doherty aka Lardy, were able to set a solid platform all game and ensured Leigh were competitive in this specific area of the set piece. However, as the game progressed the lineout seemed to struggle with credit being given to Ashford for their ability to disrupt.
The next score came on 15 mins with again a penalty being conceded with a tip tackle from inside center Will Bailey (He is short though Sir!), resulting in a well-executed lineout and a bit of scrappy play leading to a score in the corner for Ashford. The conversion not being added. (10-0).
At this point, thoughts maybe beginning to stir in that this could be a long 80 minutes. But never lose faith in the Layabouts! An early change was made with Wayne Bell replacing Bradley Clarkson on the wing. The game restarted with again Ashford putting pressure on Leigh in their own half, and the penalty count continuing to rise which gave Ashford another shot at the posts. This time their kicker being able to convert (13-0).
Aside from the infringements and set piece, the team had not looked that bad in open play. Defensively Leigh is renowned and in attack… well what attack, Leigh had not really had the ball. Therefore, the decision was made to alter tactics and start working through the gears and focus on the platform. Marshalled by scrum half Chris Austin, the forwards were brought into the game to bosh the ball up the middle in 2’s & 3’s with quick recycling and distribution gaining much needed momentum and field position. Thus, yielding Leigh’s first score with a pick and go from the base from the South African warhorse aka Marcus, as he not only drew two defenders, but managed to offload neatly to that man Jake Hudson, ghosting his way through for an easy score under the posts. The conversion being added by Chris Austin (13-7)
It has to be commented at this early stage, that flyhalf Jake Hudson is having an absolutely storming start to the season in spearheading Leigh’s backline and with his fourth try in four games, he now leads the try tally charts. Well done Cipriani and keep it up!
Ashford restarted with this time Leigh gathering the ball well and managing to clear their lines for a lineout on their 22. However, the lineout clearly a problem area for us today was again lost and thus resulted in the ball being spread wide and attacked down the right side and would have been a try had it not of been for the efforts of hooker Chris Taylor to demonstrate his football skills and poke the ball into touch. However, from this position and with Ashford’s dominance in the lineout thus far, it was relatively inevitable that a catch & drive try was to follow. The conversion not being added (18-7).
With under 10 minutes left of the first half, this was not to be the last act, as Leigh, desperately needing to make it to the interval to re-group, uncharacteristically missing a few tackles through the middle and good offloads from Ashford, resulted in a score under the posts with the conversion being added (25-7).
HALF TIME (25-7).
In the half time huddle, the team reflected on the first half performance and re-ascertained the importance of working as a unit, playing for the man next to you, and forcing Ashford to play their game. And that is exactly what the lads did!
The second half restarting with a high ball knocked deep into the opponents 22 and under the pressure of the approaching Leigh pack and the sun acting as a 16th man, the Ashford man knocked on thus resulting in a scrum. The scrums continued to be an asset for Leigh and a set piece to release the back line which saw the back three of Jon Davies, Wayne Bell & Angus Bray being brought into the fray to great effect.
It didn’t take long for Leigh to retire their next points on the board with good attacking play resulting in a penalty being awarded out wide 5m from the opponents line. Two forward pods were called for, but instead of using them, a wide pass was flung to second row Kurt Luscher who was lurking on the wing and was able to barrel his way over the line for a score in the corner. The conversion was neatly slotted by Chris Austin with Ashford supporters on the other pitch remarking ‘That’s how it’s done’. (25-14).
Ashford responded almost immediately though with a scrum in the middle of the park following a poor restart. Their back line managing to break and despite a great covering tackle by outside center John Sewell, they score in the corner. The conversion not being added (30-14).
With the lineouts being a clear problem today for Leigh, every time a penalty was awarded, providing the team were not in their 22, the decision was made to tap & go. Thus, maintaining possession, injecting a bit of pace into the game, however at the expense of depleting the energy reserves sooner rather than later. The strategy though appeared to pay dividends, as Leigh attacking the Ashford back line, and playing their game plan, forced Ashford into making mistakes such as going off their feet & side entry’s at the break downs. A final reward for this phase of play was given when Leigh in their 22 unleashed their back line and the returning Angus Bray playing fullback today, ran a neat line and had the strength to muscle his way over the line just wide of the posts. The conversion not able to be added as it cannoned off the upright – Good work Chris Austin…. (30-19).
The game restarted again with Ashford gaining possession and working the ball well up the middle. A particular strength also worth noting was their ability to offload in open play, like watching a Kiwi side in action! Thus, Leigh were pinned back in their own half, a free kick was awarded and whilst in reflection, not kicking for touch for fear of losing the lineout was a poor call, equally tapping and going and using the Leigh back line which led to losing the ball and an Ashford score in the corner. The conversion not being added (35-19).
With under 20 minutes to go, this is where the travelling Leigh supporters really upped their game and got behind their Layabouts. A couple of changes were made with Mark Tutt coming on at the wing for Ben Clifton who had an excellent game with his bullish charges up the middle, and Jon Davies moving into the back row. Leigh continued to stick to their game plan in maintaining possession, bashing the ball up the middle, the forwards working tirelessly to maintain good field territory, but securing possession and recycling well. But then with 10 minutes to go, the catalyst that Leigh needed to spark the extra 20% of energy came when Kurt Luscher, who received the ball on his 22, again on the wing (is he trying to tell us something?!) with only Wayne Bell outside him and rather than opt to pass, his first thought was head down. He managed to break the line, and then he was on his bike, like a little Dutch boy on his way to the bakery in the morning. Charging his way up the field, he ran the ball like a true winger, stepping, changing his direction and handing off encroaching defenders. Despite his team trying to catch-up with him in support, once the big lad got going, he really did get going. Breaking into the opponents 22, he had one man left to beat, and with a stiff arm, Kurt was able to fend off his opponent for a score just wide of the posts. The man we call George North aka Kurt had really given the team the inspiration they needed to believe they could do it. The conversion was added by Chris Austin. (35-26) – Game on.
With under 10 minutes to go, urgency was the message and momentum was well and truly on Leigh’s side. Final substitutes were made, Pal Butler coming on in the back row and a change in the second row. Ashford soon after had a man sent off meaning they would see the game out with 14. Leigh continued to attack, barrage upon barrage was sent up the middle until the ball was spread wide to release the backs. Leigh, were stopped short of the Ashford try line and through quick action, Ashford were over the ball and managed to force a turnover. Realising they had lost possession and recognizing Ashford were going for the box kick to relieve pressure, prop Toby Laubach forced a charge down which saw the ball fall comfortably into the hands of Chris Austin who had little to do but hit the deck for the score in the corner. With a matter of minutes left and with four points in it the kick was taken quickly to preserve time for another go at it, and unfortunately went wide. (35-31).
With a man advantage, Leigh received the ball from the kickoff and began to spread the ball and use the pace of the backs to break the line. John Sewell & Will Bailey combined well in the centres as they had done all game and supported by the Leigh pack, they made great strides to work their way up the field into the opponents 22. By this point, bodies were tired, lungs were hurting and it would come down to who could gleam that little bit of extra luck to reward their team in the victory. On this day, it was Ashford, as good work from their back line, stopping a Leigh attacker just short of the line and getting straight back up onto their feet to contest for the ball. Thus, forcing the penalty for holding on. A quick tap and the ball was spiraled into touch for the Ashford victory.
Despite the narrow loss, Leigh do leave with a losing bonus point, which may prove to be vital later in the season. As a team, we know the first half let us down and our lineouts are in need of much work. But the passion, determination and self-belief in the second half was nothing short of exceptional. Man of the Match goes to Kurtis Luscher for his two try’s and in particular his 100m run which I’m sure, is the best try he has ever scored! Honourable mentions must go to Mark Doherty aka Lardy for seeing out 80 minutes at prop, a sterling job Sir, and to Ben Clifton, a new recruit to Leigh this season, but week in week out, his performances have been vastly improving! You’ll get your first try in Leigh colors soon I’m sure!
Onto next week as Leigh travel away again to Sittingbourne and will be keen to get back to winning ways. Please do get down to support the boys, as the support in Ashford was exactly the sort of ‘fans voice’ the lads need week in week out!
1. Tobias Laubach
2. Chris Taylor
3. Mark Doherty (Lardy)
4. Kurtis Luscher
5. Ben Clifton
7. Zach Merricks
8. Marcus Van Nieuwenhuizen
9. Chris Austin (Skipper)
10. Jake Hudson
11. Bradley Clarkson
12. Will Bailey
13. John Sewell
14. Jon Davies
15. Angus Bray
16. Wayne Bell
17. Pal Butler
18. Mark Tutt
19. Toby’s Mate