2019: The Year In Team Sport
Plans for re-siting the town’s foremost sports teams remain clouded in doubt at the end of this year. Pilot Field and Horntye Park are both still scheduled for housing development, and it’s still quite unclear where, or when, its teams of footballers, cricketers and hockey players will move. Nevertheless the respective premier clubs in these sports – Hastings United FC, Hastings & St Leonards Priory CC and South Saxons HC – as well as the principal rugby and tennis clubs, can each look back on 2019 with some fond memories.
For the footballers of Hastings United there was bitter disappointment when the 2018/19 Bostik League season, which had promised so much, ended in April with semi-final play-off defeat in extra time by local rivals Ashford United. It turned out, however, that under the Football Association’s bizarre promotion rules, which weighted play-off contestants across seven eighth-tier leagues by the percentage of points-per-game gained during the regular season, even play-off victory would not have brought promotion. The lesson to be learnt: if you want to be sure of going up, make yourselves champions.
The club has clearly taken that to heart in the current season 2019/20. Over the summer, manager Chris Agutter jettisoned many of the players who came close to success last time round, including local favourite Sam Cruttwell: also exiting was youthful defender Jamie Fielding, signed by League 2 side Stevenage Borough. But with a reduced squad, and a markedly less volatile selection policy for match day line-ups, the team has played this autumn with a firmness of purpose and increasing confidence. They remain unbeaten in what is now the Betvictor Isthmian League South East Division and currently top the league table.
Last Saturday’s 5-1 demolition of Chichester City was their seventh home victory out of seven. A crowd of over 600 – well up on last year’s average at Pilot Field – enjoyed football of remarkable quality for a match at this level, particularly in the first half, with notable individual performances from Adam Lovatt in midfield, playing his 100th game for the club, and striker Davide Rodari who scored twice to follow a remarkable eight-goal haul in a recent league cup tie against East Grinstead.
If there’s one concern about the ‘U’s’ capacity to march on to the league title and promotion come April, it’s their comparatively under-achieving form away from the smooth turf of Pilot Field – only two wins and five draws in their first seven league fixtures (before last Tuesday night’s match at Sittingbourne). But after scoring only three goals in the first five of those games, including three 0-0 draws, they have hit five in the last two. And unlike last season, when Cray Wanderers opened up a big points gap that the chasing teams could never catch, there doesn’t seem any rival league side this time that can match them for quality and consistency.
The 2019 cricketers of Hastings & St Leonards Priory struggled early on in their season in limited over format, but came through in fine style to win the Sussex League Division 2 title, earning themselves a return to the Premier League next summer. The team’s success owed much to a quartet of bowlers – John Morgan and Adam Barton as seamers, Elliott Hooper and Jed O’Brien with left-arm spin – but also a deep batting line-up that always seemed to find runs from somewhere. Ricardo de Nobrega proved a good find as overseas recruit from Perth, Australia as opening batsman; captain Tom Gillespie and Jake Woolley were other consistent run-getters; but prime performer with both bat and ball was 23-year-old Hooper.
He scored 621 league runs, took 43 wickets at an average of less than 14, made 8 catches in the field – and after several years in junior and 2nd X1 county squads made his full county debut in August at Hove for Sussex against Middlesex. For his maiden first-class wicket he bowled out England Test batsman Dawid Malan and scored 20 in his only innings.
If his career trajectory carries on upwards with Sussex, that may in the longer term be Priory’s loss, but his success reflects well on the standard of cricket that has been on offer at Horntye.
Sharing team championship and promotion glory in 2019 at the same venue were South Saxons ladies hockey team. They had been relegated from the Sussex Ladies Premier division the previous March by the very last hit of the season, but stormed back a year later in convincing fashion, going through the 22-match Division One campaign unbeaten.
Since September, SSL have maintained the quality of their play to prosper in the top half of the Premier. Last Saturday’s match at Horntye against Lewes, a 3-3 draw, was typical of the closely fought contests of the current season.
The South Saxons men’s team, by contrast, seemed to have missed out on promotion from the Kent/Sussex 2 league in the spring, but a re-structuring of leagues above them meant they were invited up anyway. It’s been a tough season in elevated company so far, but last Saturday’s victory over bottom-of-the-table Maidstone keeps them in the frame to maintain their status.
At the junior end of the club there are some strong players beginning to push through, and enough girls to put out a competitive team in the development league. Junior numbers are good, according to chairman Jeremy Bunday, although more would always be welcome to join the development squads and Sunday sessions.
Unlike other sports teams Hastings & Bexhill RFC have no plans to relocate, though they’ve had to rename their home ground from Ark William Parker to Ark Alexandra to match the newly reconstituted school academy that owns it. The 1st XV, under new coach Ben Davies, were very unfortunate to be relegated from the London & South-East League after two years of competitive rugby at that level. A mid-season slump in form left them too much leeway to recover, despite a heroic endeavour on the final day. Needing an away win at second-placed Beccehamian to propel them to safety they fought back from a 26-12 halftime deficit to get within two points of their hosts before finally succumbing to a late try. There was compensation in reaching the final of the Bob Rogers Cup for the first time in the club’s history in April. Again they acquitted themselves bravely in defeat.
Back in the Kent League from this September they started the current campaign with some apparently encouraging pre-season results, went down to a crushing 52-6 home defeat by King’s College Hospital in their first competitive game, but have subsequently won five and drawn one of the following seven. Last Saturday they beat near neighbours Cranbrook, who are leading points scorers in the division, by a convincing 25-15 margin. Despite conceding ground at scrums to a heavier pack, H&B’s determined tackling and superior handling and running skills proved decisive, with tries scored by Tom Waring, Jake Stinson and Louis Sealy supplemented by the accurate place-kicking of captain Bruce Steadman. On this form, a return to the higher league does not look beyond them.
At both The Green and Amherst tennis clubs it is the ladies’ teams who are leading the way. Amherst will play in the elite Open Women’s Division One of the Team Tennis Sussex competition in 2020 after winning Division 2E this year. With an evenly talented squad of players (featured in HIP 141) captain Jane Garrett is looking forward to the challenge. Amherst will also join The Green in Division L2 of the Wilson Sandford Summer Doubles after winning L3 this summer. The latter, down the road in St Leonards, didn’t compete in the Team Tennis series, but in both winter and summer doubles are a pretty even match for their Hastings counterparts, particularly when hard-hitting youth player Olivia Stapley is available to play.
The respective men’s teams are rather lower ranked in their equivalent competitions, though Amherst coach Doug Keen remains a formidable player in Team Tennis singles and doubles.
The Green veteran Christine Greenwood continues to organise the annual Hastings Open Tennis Championships with finals in May, an event started by former stalwart Richard King in 2001 and this year opened up to players from other tennis clubs from out of town.
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