Jersey Reds suffered an agonising loss to start their 2017/18 campaign, coming away with just a losing bonus point after a pulsating match in which the lead changed hands six times.
The two-point losing margin continued the tradition of close matches between the Reds and Doncaster Knights, who also finished last season level on points in the final table, with the Yorkshire side advancing to the play-offs on the 'most wins' tie-breaker.
The home side began the match at a fast pace, showing slick handling and a desire to run the ball, and could have scored within a few minutes, but the Doncaster defence held firm and soon afterwards the visitors were first on the scoreboard. Aaron Carpenter's burst upfield began the move, with the ball fed to Will Owen who surged to the line.
Knights' Simon Humberstone and his counterpart Brendan Cope traded place-kicks, and Doncaster could have scored again when Tyson Lewis was unable to complete good work from Charlie Foley and Carpenter, but then the Reds took the lead. Kieran Hardy took a quickly-tapped penalty near half-way, sprinted 40 metres and fed half-back partner Brendan Cope for the try (pictured below by Rich Chapman).
Replacement Tom James scored the Knights second after a kick ahead by Michael Heaney and good follow-up work by Junior Bulumakau, and the visitors took a one-point lead into half-time. Reds' captain Scott van Breda had taken on kicking duties for one long-range penalty effort, but although his howitzer boot had the distance - around 55 metres - it was just wide.
The high point of the second half for the Reds was an electric burst down the left for a try for Jason Worrall after an assist from Van Breda. This put the hosts four points clear, but Jersey were suffering in the penalty count at this point (after conceding only three penalties to the visitors' seven before the break) and this allowed opportunities for Humberstone. Twice in three minutes the Knights' kicker fired over penalties from around 45 metres to complete a perfect afternoon from the tee and put his side back into the lead.
In the closing minutes the Reds were for the most part pushed back into their half as Doncaster looked to seal the win with another score. The home defence held firm and when the siege was raised there was the tantalising prospect of a final winning score, but when Bulumakau intercepted a pass from replacement Jared Saunders to Worrall, the last chance was gone, the only crumb of comfort being that the Knights wing was hauled down rather than making it all the way to the try-line.
Jersey Reds' Head Coach Harvey Biljon and Knights DoR Clive Griffiths both expressed frustration about the officiating, especially at scrum time. The Jersey boss said he was disappointed to lose, although he said there were positives to be taken.
"It was a really good gauge for our new team against a team with continuity like Doncaster - we played some nice rugby but there were times when we put ourselves under pressure because we lost concentration or didn't fully play to the system we'd trained for," he said. "The boys will be really keen to make up for this when we take on Hartpury and the Pirates over the next two weeks, and I believe the squad has great potential to improve and gel."
The final result meant each team has scored 242 points in the 11 matches between the sides since Jersey reached the Championship in 2012 - the Knights now have five wins to the Reds' four, with two draws.
As well as being the first league match of the season, it was the first game to be played at the newly-named Stade Santander International. The new name was part of an extended agreement between Jersey Reds and lead sponsor Santander International, announced this week - LINK
JERSEY REDS: Van Breda (c); Pincus, Best (Abrahams 79), Ma'afu, Worrall; Cope, Hardy; Woolmore (Godfrey 54), Macfarlane (Saunders 47), Armstrong (Atalifo 50), Voss (McKern 65), Sexton, Rogerson, Joyce (Nagle-Taylor 65), Argyle. Replacement not used: Dudley
DONCASTER KNIGHTS: Jarvis (James 29); Bulumakau, Foley, Owen, Lewis; Humberstone, Heaney; List (Evans 51), Hunter (Nelson 53), Quigley (Sproston 58), Challinor, Hicks (Eames 58), Shaw, Hills (c), Carpenter (Hill 54). Replacement not used: Cusack
REFEREE: Andrew Jackson. Assistants: Dan Parrott, Nick Marshall
Half Time: 16-17
Man-of-the-match (as chosen by match sponsor Geomarine): Scott van Breda
Tries: Cope 25, Worrall 59
Conversion: Cope 25
Penalties: Cope 8, 14, 29, 46
Tries: Owen 6, James 36
Conversions: Humberstone 6, 36
Penalties: Humberstone 10, 56, 64, 66
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