Alton Silverbacks responded supremely well to their heavy defeat against runaway league leaders Jersey and edged a close encounter 20-18 at home to Gosport and Fareham last Saturday (February 4).
Several notable absences from recent good performances forced Alton into an unfamiliar starting line-up, but there is strength in depth in the squad and the replacements performed admirably.
Alton took the game to Gosport in the early stages, with Lewis New landing an early penalty after just four minutes as the visitors were penalised for not rolling away.
A feature of recent weeks has been Alton’s strength at the lineout, but without the likes of Burrage and captain Whittock, Gosport put some pressure on Alton’s set play.
Mark Heffernan stopped an almost certain try as Gosport launched their first forays inside the Alton 22, but with pressure mounting they took the lead after eight minutes with a well-taken try in the right corner.
Alton responded well and Michael Robson was stopped just short of the line.
In the forwards it was a fierce battle as Alton forced Gosport on the back foot with Leo Gardner, Ryan Bale and Nick Stoffel at the heart of the attack. However, it was the number eight Aidan Trethewey who caught the eye with one of his finest performances in an Alton shirt.
Good defence from Gosport kept Stoffel at bay on a couple of occasions, but after 19 minutes they transgressed once too often and had a player sin-binned for not rolling away just five metres from their own line. Alton took immediate advantage with Trethewey bursting through for Alton’s opening try. New converted as Alton took a 10-5 lead after 20 minutes.
The Gosport captain was immediately warned for back-chat among his team, but they did not heed his words. A pass was deemed to have gone forward in midfield and Gosport were again penalised for their lack of discipline with their response to the official.
The resulting penalty was missed, however, as Alton failed to extend their lead.
Jonah Stoodley was now growing into the game, as was the immense figure of Oliver Hunt as Gosport were repelled by some fine tackling.
Dan Androuliakos’ kick was collected by the Gosport winger with his foot in touch, and Alton were soon camped on the Gosport line. They failed to capitalise, and it was Gosport who finished the half strongly, bursting through in midfield to level the scores at half time at 10-10.
Increasingly two players were controlling the momentum of their teams, with the Gosport scrum half and Joe Gwyther pulling the strings of their respective sides.
Gwyther’s kicking from hand was excellent all afternoon, but a fine 50:22 kick did not receive the reward that it deserved, as Alton were adjudged to have advanced ahead of the kicker.
Gosport kicked the resulting penalty and moments later Alton were reduced to 14 men as Oli Fielder was sin-binned for taking a player out.
Alton turned the numerical disadvantage on its head with some aggressive tackling in a pivotal passage of play.
Firstly, they held up a rolling maul over the line, and with Gwyther kicking deep they even began to gain some territory. Two quick penalties went against Gosport, and New kicked well again to level the scores once more.
Gosport controlled the territory for much of the second half as Alton struggled to force their way up the slope. Even when a Robson kick seemed to have relieved some pressure, Alton were penalised for closing the gap at a lineout and back came Gosport once more.
Gosport’s centre and scrum half were becoming increasingly dominant, and they eventually created an overlap on the right wing to lead 18-13 after 60 minutes.
Gwyther conjured up another opportunity for Androuliakos, but the ball bounced kindly for Gosport who were able to clear with a goalline drop out.
However, Alton took solace from this and for the first time in a while they forced their way inside the Gosport 22. Every yard was hard fought as Alton probed left and right, with Fielder being at the centre of many attacks, but Gosport stood strong.
It was the imagination of Gwyther, though, that proved decisive and eventually opened the stubborn Gosport defence. Spaces began to materialise and that was enough to afford Gwyther an opportunity and he took it superbly.
He hardly connected with a deft short kick, but that was enough for him to stroll through and he duly collected to score. New converted and Alton were now 20-18 up with only six minutes remaining.
The Alton line was barely threatened for the remainder of the match and they kicked well and held their discipline to not concede any penalties.
With other results going their way, Alton are now slowly climbing the table and have closed to within a point of Petersfield and Trojans.
Alton are at home to Andover today (Saturday). The visitors will be seeking revenge as Alton recorded their first victory of the season at Andover after seven straight defeats.