Alton Silverbacks 24 Old Walcountians 27: IF GAMES of rugby were played over 79 minutes, then Alton Silverbacks would probably have ended the season in the top half of the table.

But not for the first time they succumbed to a last-minute penalty against Old Walcountians in an exciting final game of the season played in front of a large vocal crowd at Anstey Park.

Alton have been hard hit by injuries this season, but they welcomed back several first-choice players, and this was one of the strongest sides they were able to field this year.

Counts came into the game guaranteed a fourth-place finish and likewise Alton were secure in ninth, so both teams had nothing to lose and seemed intent on playing free-flowing rugby right from kick-off.

Alton started with great intensity and played some of their finest rugby all season in the first half. If the visitors had looked at recent results they may have been expecting a comfortable afternoon – but with Joe Gwyther back at fly half, ably supported by Oli Fielder, Cameron Hamer and Oli Burden in the backs, they were immediately under pressure.

The Alton scrum started well too, and the front row of Nick Stoffel, Luke Parratt and Ryan Bale instantly created havoc.

The impressive No8 Paris Mcerlan had to go off for a blood injury early on but Mayowa Olonilua proved a worthy replacement and Alton were rewarded with an opening score after just five minutes as Fielder was unstoppable from ten metres out.

A loose kick from Counts went dead and Alton were soon battling their way up the slope once more. Burden and Hamer made good ground, weaving their way through the heart of the Counts defence, Olonilua again carried well and although Counts defence stood strong, they conceded two penalties and Gwyther extended the lead to 10-0 after 18 minutes.

Counts responded and played the next 15 minutes largely in the Alton half.

Alton defended well and had opportunities to release some pressure, but a drop out from within their own in-goal area went straight into touch. A near-interception by Ed Thomas was unluckily not gathered and with mounting pressure, they conceded several penalties. Eventually space opened and Counts used it well and registered their first points in the right corner.

With moments remaining in the first half, Tom Smethurst crashed over from close range and appeared to ground the ball on the line, but the official was unsighted and could not award the try.

Counts resisted the ensuing five-metre line out and were looking to escape the Alton onslaught, but the Alton pack won a five-metre try against the head and Aidan Trethewey proved to be an irresistible force to score again.

It was a really encouraging first-half performance from the whole team but notably that of the youthful Glenn Carter at full back, who positioned well and kicked confidently.

Mcerlan showed his power and skills with a neat pass out the back of the hand to Thomas, who kicked deftly down the line and tackled his opposite number in touch as Alton looked to re-establish their dominance.

But Counts resisted some early attacks and frequently were able to regain possession as Alton were unable to get the ball back in the rolling maul.

They slowly grew into the second half and scored two quick tries in succession to level the scores after 60 minutes as they kept the ball in hand and played through multiple phases.

It was now Alton’s turn to look a little frazzled, but they carried the fight back to their hosts with a five-minute period within the Counts’ red zone.

After conceding a penalty at halfway, Counts’ long kick appeared to be going over the dead ball line once more. But Alton knocked on and Counts capitalised from the scrum and scored their bonus-point try to take the lead for the first time.

With five minutes left, another loss of ball at an Alton maul seemed to have snuffed out any hopes of a draw. But they regained possession and Gwyther challenged the Counts defensive rushing line.

With little opportunity, it appeared, his skilful kick and chase was judged to perfection and the ball set up perfectly as he gathered and ran in from 25 metres to score a superb try and level the scores.

It would have been a fitting way to finish the game with possibly Alton’s best try this season.

But Alton conceded a further penalty and to the delight of the visiting supporters, Counts kicked the points – and it was that familiar finale once more.

The only consolation for Alton was a losing bonus point.

Great credit to all of Alton’s players and coaching team for competing well against established clubs with more experience at this level.

The combination of Alton’s experience in the pack bolstered by youth in the back row and some lightning backs bodes well for next season.

Injuries and illnesses have clearly been a major factor, but those who have stepped up from the Colts will have gained valuable experience and there is clearly talent coming through the youth system.

Report by Gary Brench