Alton Silverbacks slipped to a narrow 24-21 defeat against Portsmouth at Anstey Park last Saturday (March 4) – and now sit second from bottom in Hampshire 1 with one game left to play.
After an injury-ravaged season which forced Alton to concede a walkover to Winchester last weekend, again they dug deep into their squad with several key players missing.
However, their replacements put in a stirring performance and they could easily have taken more from the game.
As it was, they had to settle for a losing bonus point, but with there being no definitive promotion and relegation template from the Rugby Football Union, it is unclear at what level Alton will be playing next season.
Alton started brightly and immediately put Portsmouth under pressure with aggressive forward play and invention from the backs.
A rolling maul led by James Rayner was stopped just short and then Nick Stoffel was held up over the line as Alton were dominant in the early stages.
Joe Gwyther’s fine 50:22 kick maintained the early pressure.
Jonah Stoodley collected well in the lineout, and Ryan Bale’s surging run broke through the lines and the ball was quickly recycled.
Gwyther found Cameron Hamer and his floated wide pass gave Oli Fielder an overlap opportunity that Dan Androuliakos took advantage of to score in the corner after ten minutes.
The visitors responded immediately as Alton were penalised from the kick-off, which was compounded with back chat.
Portsmouth kicked deep for their first attack, and there was no stopping their bulky forwards’ rolling maul as they took the lead against the run of play.
Back came the Silverbacks. In the midst of another maul, Rayner’s try-scoring celebrations were cut short as he realised he had touched down on the five-metre line.
Moments later Portsmouth were penalised for not rolling away under the posts, although it appeared Alton had knocked on. Gwyther took the opportunity from short range, and Alton led 8-7.
Hamer pounced on a ball in midfield and the Portsmouth full back was adjudged to have deliberately knocked on to stop the attack and he was sin-binned for ten minutes.
Portsmouth did not step back, and the 14 men scored their second rolling maul try after a few penalties in quick succession from Alton. Two fine conversions from Portsmouth in the first half ultimately decided the contest.
Playing with a man advantage, Alton looked to finish the half strongly.
Three minutes later, Androuliakos collected well and from deep in his own half. He silkily picked off a few Portsmouth forwards and weaved his way through to score an exceptional try as Alton took a deserved 15-14 lead at half-time after Gwyther kicked his conversion well.
A spiralling kick into the grey skies was well handled by Portsmouth as the fly half called the mark, but New quickly charged down the free kick as soon as the player moved. Alton extended their lead to 18-14 from the resulting penalty as Portsmouth complained.
Portsmouth were quickly in Alton territory once more as the home side conceded a penalty after rolling forward after the tackle. Moments later, Alton’s backs had no match for the Portsmouth prop who crashed over in the corner. The visitors led 19-18.
Much to the indignation of the Portsmouth backs, they soon went off their feet as Alton increased the pressure in loose play, allowing them to take the lead once more.
From deep in their territory, a simple move saw Fielder’s magnificent pass release Michael Robson, who kicked deep into the corner, but Portsmouth averted the danger.
When key players are missing the rolling maul has long been the nemesis of Alton, and so it proved to be again.
One of the Alton forwards slipped at a lineout 15 metres from their own line, and Portsmouth capitalised and strode through the space to clinch the victory 24-21.
Mark Heffernan then burst through a gap, but he was isolated as Alton failed to take advantage and became increasingly desperate.
In the closing ten minutes it was Portsmouth who dominated territory in a ragged passage of play as neither side created any clear openings.
Alton now face their final game of the season, at home to Trojans today (Saturday).
Trojans eased their own relegation concerns with a win against Bournemouth.
Jersey and Winchester have dominated the league this season, and whatever happens in the final reckoning, Alton’s squad – drawn from a small catchment area – should be proud of their achievements against some much larger clubs.