Torrential overnight rain was not enough to come between Heath and their much anticipated Bob Rogers Cup tie against local rivals Uckfield.
Whilst Whitemans Green was deemed unplayable due to standing water on all pitches, a hasty switch of venue thanks to the generosity of Hurstpierpoint College meant that the game was able to go ahead on the school pitch which was in excellent condition despite the rain.
For some weeks the Heath players had been looking forward to testing themselves against an Uckfield side who sit two leagues above them in London 3 and were likely to feature a number of former Heath players in their match day squad.
And it wasn’t just the players who were relishing the added spice of a Cup game - the Heath supporters, many arriving straight from a pre match lunch at the Clubhouse, enjoyed the novelty of a road trip, arriving at Hurst in good number and high spirits to cheer on their team, meaning the game was played in front of a vociferous crowd of around 200.
Straight from the kick off it was clear that Heath were right up for the game and the ferocity of their ball carrying, tackling and rucking appeared to take Uckfield by surprise. Every time an Uckfield player received the ball they were immediately engulfed by a wave of red and black tacklers, often led by inside centre Max Drage whose line speed in defence and committed tackling allowed the Uckfield midfield no room to operate.
The Heath back row of Dan Fergusson, Nick Main and Sam Drage were also everywhere, putting in big hits on the opposition and ball carrying with such an intensity that Uckfield were pinned back in their own half. After 12 minutes Heath were awarded a penalty on the right hand side just outside the 22. Fly half Robbie Fotheringham stepped up but in wet and windy conditions hit the upright, which almost resulted in a try for quick-thinking winger Jamie Diggle who nearly caught Uckfield napping from the rebound.
The resulting five metre scrum to Uckfield led to scrappy ball squirting into their in goal area, where lightening reactions from veteran scrum half Alex Meredith resulted in a try to Heath. Fotheringham converted to make it 7-0 to the hosts.
Roared on by the crowd Heath’s tails were well and truly up and from the kick off they were straight back at Uckfield - powerful scrummaging and strong carrying from the Heath front row of Duncan Liddell, Will Purdy and Euan Greaves-Smith meant that the visitors were pinned down in their own half and were unable to achieve field position through kicking.
When they did clear to touch they found no let up from Heath as the home team’s line out was well drilled with second rows Nick Miller and Steve May winning regular good ball despite the greasy conditions. Clever game management from the Heath half backs with intelligent kicking into the corners meant that the Uckfield side were constantly back peddling and not looking like a side with the armoury to get into the Heath half.
Another attack led to a scorching run from outside centre Jack Lucas deep into Uckfield territory which was only partially cleared until a Heath knock on led to an Uckfield scrum well inside their own half. Again the Heath eight applied the pressure to take the ball against the head and a beautifully weighted kick from Meredith allowed a quick thinking Fotheringham to outpace the defence and dive onto the loose ball for a second try wide on the left. The score wasn’t converted but still gave Heath a healthy lead of 12-0 after 36 minutes.
This score led to a fight back from Uckfield. A penalty was drilled deep into Heath territory and, from the resulting lineout, Uckfield made numerous charges at the Heath line from five metres out. Bodies on the line defence from Heath kept the pick and goes at bay until the referee saw a further infringement and from the ensuing penalty Uckfield were able to finally breach the Heath line. That was the last play of the half to leave the score at the interval at 12-7 with all to play for both sides during the second period.
Uckfield clearly invigorated by a combination of their try on the stroke of half time, playing down the hill in the second half and fresh legs coming off the bench to join their pack, picked up from where they had left off and started to show the competitive edge acquired from playing in the higher leagues. For the first 10 minutes of the half it was Uckfield who were turning the screw at scrum time and kicking to the corners. A controversial penalty against Heath when Uckfield were not releasing on the floor allowed the Uckfield scrum half to drill the ball through the posts reducing the deficit to just 2 points. 12-10 to Heath with half an hour to play.
Whilst the crowd were nervous the Heath players clearly had no doubts as to their ability to finish the job and with the impact of back row substitute Josh Salisbury being felt at the breakdown, coupled with his barnstorming runs from broken play, Uckfield were pushed back into their own half. Any time that Uckfield did manage to get in a clearing kick it was expertly marshalled by the Heath back three of Matt Duncan, Jack Best and Diggle who returned everything thrown at them with interest. The kicking for field position from Meredith, Fotheringham and Best did not allow Uckfield any significant time out of their half and on 34 minutes a sweeping move from the Heath forwards and backs looked likely to result in a try until it was illegally halted by Uckfield in front of their own posts. Meredith drilled the ball through the posts to take the score to 15-10 and give Heath a bit of breathing space.
Heath were not finished and their pack was now back in charge. With a minute of normal time remaining an incisive break from Salisbury led to the ball coming through the hands to the left where Lucas clinically finished the move sliding over to score and seal the game. A final score of 20-10 did not flatter Heath and Coach Jody Levett’s game plan was well executed by his team from start to finish in front of a noisy band of supporters. Meredith rolled back the years with his performance in difficult conditions and was declared Man of the Match.
This win puts Heath into the semi finals of the Bob Rogers Cup to be played on the 14th February where they will meet more local rivals - either Crowborough or Lewes - with the renewed belief in the squad coming from this performance, Heath will relish the challenge. Heath’s next league game is away at Eastbourne II on the 10th January.