Injuries proved costly as Alton Silverbacks slipped to a narrow 27-26 defeat at home to Andover in Hampshire 1 on Saturday.
In recent times, matches between the teams have been tight affairs, and this was no exception as Andover came from behind to win by one point at Anstey Park.
Alton’s starting line-up on paper was perhaps one of their strongest of the season, but they were ultimately undone by a string of injuries during the match and finished playing most of the second half with only 14 men.
With less than ten seconds played the writing was on the wall already as Ben Burrage suffered an ankle injury and was immediately replaced by Ed Simmons.
With weighty props, it was immediately obvious that Alton had no match in the scrum and Andover took the lead from the resulting penalty after just three minutes.
The substitute Simmons did not last long himself as he suffered a knee injury and the Alton pre-match optimism was already starting to wane.
With the lively Gaz Schreuder and Josh Richardson returning and with the ever-dependable back combinations of Joe Gwyther, Lewis New, Oli Fielder and Dan Androuliakos, it appeared Alton’s best chance of success was pace in the backs as they responded brightly.
Andover were guilty of offside as the defence became stretched and New immediately tied the scores at 3-3. His kicking was imperious throughout.
Schreuder never lacks in confidence and he had been impeccable in the return fixture at Andover, but the backs’ moves were not quite clicking as they looked to force their running game on the opposition.
Leo Gardner was the next Alton player to succumb to injury and Alton had emptied the substitutes’ bench and were forced to field players in unfamiliar positions, with scrum half Mark Heffernan playing as a flanker.
An exchange of penalties, with New kicking another, made the score 6-6, but Oliver Hunt could not resist a ball knocked forward from the kick-off and another penalty was kicked by Andover into the corner.
Andover capitalised with an overload on the wing and scored the game’s first try, which was well converted, to lead 13-6.
Both sides committed a number of errors and it was Andover who were benefiting as they were dominant in the set piece.
After a period of broken play, Alton managed to level the scores on the stroke of half-time as first Schreuder put Andover on the back foot, Karter Whittock did the same to get within ten metres and then New weaved his way through to score a fine try. The score was 13-13 at half-time.
Playing up the slope, Alton dominated field possession and territory in the first 20 minutes of the second half but failed to find any clear-cut chances.
On 52 minutes Whittock was hit late, and Alton were down to 14 players.
However, New converted the resulting penalty and then another from near the halfway line on 63 minutes as the referee warned Andover for repeated high tackles.
A 50:22 kick by Gwyther was not caught by Andover and bounced kindly in touch as Alton increased the intensity.
Backs and forwards combined well with Ryan Bale, then Fielder and George Pantrey all going close. When Hunt gathered there was no stopping him from close range as he took three or four players over the line with him. Alton now led 26-13.
The score was greeted loudly by his team-mates, and Hunt has started to establish his colossal presence in the Alton line-up.
The referee had seen enough from Andover and gave a sinbin against them for another high tackle in the build-up to the try, and it seemed the game was won.
The scrum was still in fast retreat, but Alton were hooking quickly and were handling the situation better now.
It was difficult to know exactly how many minutes were remaining as time was added on for repeated injuries, but when Andover scored in the corner it appeared the game was drawing to a conclusion.
However, Andover were bolstered by the news that ten minutes were remaining, and they pushed for the comeback victory against some sterling resistance from the home side.
The Andover props’ running power had been difficult to handle all game, but eventually Andover were rewarded for their valiant late efforts and scored a converted try with only two minutes remaining to win 27-26.
It was tough to take for Alton as they had struggled against adversity caused by the injury list. They were at least rewarded with a losing bonus point that moved them up to eighth in the table.
They are now on level points with Petersfield, Bournemouth’s second team and Trojans, and are only two points behind Portsmouth.
Alton travel to Bournemouth on Saturday in what promises to be a key game in the battle to avoid relegation. Alton then travel to Winchester on Saturday, February 25.