Hemel Stags’ difficult start to the Championship 1 season continued on Sunday as they were beaten 31-28 by Oxford at Iffley Road.
Games between these two development area clubs have always been closely contested, with last year’s corresponding fixture ending in a draw.
But with Oxford getting the better of the Stags in the Challenge Cup earlier this season, coupled with the fact that Hemel had shipped more than 50 points in each of their last two games, the hosts were firm pre-match favourites.
Oxford were first on the charge, gaining a second set and piling pressure on Hemel, the result being a try to Adam Brook on six minutes that was not converted.
Hemel replied in kind, though, pressurising the hosts well until a superb jinking run by Derrell Olpherts over 50 metres set up Michael Brown for the score. BJ Swindells’ conversion gave Hemel a two-point lead.
Their advantage increased shortly afterwards as a penalty for holding down and a drive by Eddie Mbaraga found Alex Anthony free on the right for a simple touch down. Swindells again converted.
Oxford hit back after 25 minutes, though, as Matty Blythe slipped through the Hemel defence and Nathan Conroy was held up. In the next move everybody in the ground except the referee believed Oxford had knocked on, but Jonny Morris played to the whistle and touched the ball down.
Another try from Anthony – another strong run by Olpherts being the catalyst – was followed by a converted try to Oxford by Marcus Brooker in a game that was flowing from end to end.
The pendulum swung back in Hemel’s favour when quick hands put in debutante Vinny Finigan who was having an impressive game. However, Swindells’ miss with the kick was to prove costly.
The final act of the half saw Conroy force his way over the line, with Barlow converting to put Oxford two points ahead at the interval.
Hemel started the second half well but things soon swung in Oxford’s favour, with Louis Richards crossing for a try on the left wing after a strong Morris run.
Another Oxford try soon followed as Matty Blythe’s superb offload was picked up by Conroy after the ball had been kicked through.
Although the game looked over, Hemel fought back – a forceful charge by prop Rob Thomas creating room for Jamie O’Callaghan to spin out of a tackle and go over.
Coleman missed the kick but Hemel were back to being a converted score down; Barlow helping Oxford’s cause with a neat one-pointer.
Still Hemel fought on but a second try for Finigan two minutes from time was not quite enough.
Hemel coach Troy Perkins was furious at the end of the game, saying: “We beat ourselves; we gave away too much and made too many mistakes to win. We were poor today.”