Wind-Blown H & B Stay Realistic
Three years ago Hastings & Bexhill suffered a chastening winter in the London and South-East League, suffering regular wallopings from teams that were bigger, quicker and more experienced than them. Relegated back to the Kent League in 2015 they stalled for a season, but last year moved up through the gears to achieve the best results in the club’s history – a league championship and county cup double. This autumn, promoted back to where they had been, and still with virtually the same body of players, they have started with three wins and a draw in the first six games. They will not be anyone’s cannon fodder now.
But nor can they expect to have everything go their way in the higher league, and last Saturday was a case in point as they lost 23-14 at home to Crowborough. The visitors came with a basic plan: kick for territory, then grind forward to the try-line or force penalties. A raking northwest wind – nothing unusual by the climatic standard of the upper playing field at the Ark Academy (former William Parker) where Hastings & Bexhill play their rugby, but a major factor nevertheless – blew in the home side’s favour in the first half, and they led 7-6 at halftime, after a splendid break in midfield carved an opening for Ben Petty to run through and score under the posts. But it wasn’t enough. After the turn-round Crowborough penned their hosts back territorially with long kicks downwind. They retook the lead with a pushover try from a penalty scrum, and thereafter H & B huffed and puffed against them to little effect despite some neat passing moves in attack and sound tackling in defence. A second converted try and third penalty goal put the visitors in full control, and only a late try by Calvin Crosby-Clarke for H & B brought a more respectable scoreline at the final whistle.
Chris Brooks, head coach, admitted afterwards that the game hadn’t gone quite to plan, and mentioned that a couple of absent players (including regular try-scoring wing Tim Sills and scrum half Eliot Parry, though he didn’t name them) had been missed. “We will be working at it in training”, he said. But he had previously indicated that the club’s target this season is a mid-table finish, which looks entirely realistic. Indeed chairman Jeremy Hohenkerk maintains that this level – eighth tier in the English rugby union pyramid – is the highest he would want the club to go at this stage while holding onto its amateur and local ethos.
There is no question of the players being paid or of the management trawling through the ranks of clubs elsewhere to secure transfers. Furthermore if a home-grown player emerged who had career prospects at a higher level, H& B would expect to help him on his way with their blessing. Jeremy is more concerned to keep the club healthy at the bottom end, assisting the local Ark school to return to competitive rugby – it fell out of favour there with the ending of William Parker’s status as a sports academy – and breeding future first team players from the ranks of current second and third fifteens.
The case of fly-half Bruce Steadman is exemplary. Having learnt his rugby at William Parker school he came up through the ranks of third and second teams to win his place in the first. Then, finding that the team had no regular place-kicker and was squandering merited victories by missing out on try conversions and penalties, he has set about learning to fulfil that role too.
Assiduous coaching at all levels is, however, key to H & B’s progress, says Jeremy. Chris Brooks was due to step down as head coach after four years in charge, but was persuaded to continue until next April. Current player and specialist forwards coach Steve McManus assists, and every six weeks RFU level 3 coach Craig Burgess comes down to Hastings to provide a master-class. The players aren’t just stronger and more experienced than three years ago; they are performing in a much more tactically structured way.
In the difficult conditions of last Saturday, not only the stiff breeze but an initially greasy ball following earlier rain, that wasn’t always apparent. Complex inter-passing, including flicked off-loads and doubling runs, can look over-audacious, and basic handling errors prove costly. But there is an infectious enthusiasm in the way the team keep strutting their stuff, and it’s good to watch – though you need to remind yourself from the touchline that the bar will be open straight after the game, and that the wind won’t keep blowing in there.