Blues banish slow starters tag and buy themselves some breathing space with much-needed win over Salisbury
Newbury Blues head coach James McAvoy breathed a sigh of relief after his side ended a run of eight successive defeats with a much-needed 18-14 win over Salisbury.
Blues had been sliding precariously towards the bottom two and defeat to second bottom Salisbury would have left McAvoy’s side in serious trouble but the hosts managed to shrug off the pressure of the occasion and move clear of danger.
McAvoy has often lamented Newbury’s indifferent openings to games but Blues banished their reputation as slow starters and raced into a 12-0 lead, with skipper Dan Thorne kicking two penalties.
Jamaican international Sevens star Jack Rampton marked his Blues debut with a well-taken try while stalwart Duncan Craigen also crossed for the hosts, who moved six points clear of Salisbury.
And McAvoy said Saturday’s all-important victory produced a mixture of emotions in the Monks Lane dressing room, with the boss relieved to have been on the right side of the result for the first time since October.
“Relief was definitely one of the emotions,” he said.
“It was just one of those games where all that really matters is the win.
“We’ve spoken a lot about how performances have been improving, and I actually think we’ve played a lot better in previous games, but it just goes to show how competitive this league is. You can have better performances and be unlucky or you can not play as well but scrape through.
“We’ve got to work out what gets us to that point, and gets us over the line, every week.
“One of the things we’ve really turned around is the start. It just gives us so much more confidence and self-belief. We know we can normally finish strong but we needed to give ourselves that platform; from there, it just felt like our day.
“Dan (Thorne) showed great composure to take the three points when that’s not something previously we might have done. Those six points ultimately got us the win.”
Newbury do not have an enviable run of games coming up, with McAvoy’s side set to take on all of the top four across their next four matches. That meant there was even more pressure on Saturday’s game with fellow strugglers Salisbury – and the Blues boss was delighted with how his side responded to the pressure of what could prove a pivotal contest come the end of the campaign.
He said: “It’s a tricky balancing act.
“When I read back what I’d said a few weeks ago about not being overly-concerned about being in a relegation battle, I think that probably wasn’t me being authentic.
“We are in it, that’s a pretty indisputable fact, and I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the messaging; it’s important we recognise where we are, we can’t hide from it, but it has to be a positive stress rather than something that makes people go into their shell.
“We knew the outcome of the game was going to be important in the context of the season, but we didn’t want to do too much differently from what we’ve been doing in games and in training to realise that outcome.
“We had to just own where we are but we knew we had the opportunity to re-write this end bit to the season. We wanted to play without fear and trust each other and the outcome will pretty much sort itself out.”
McAvoy was impressed with the finish of fleet-footed winger Jack Rampton, who marked his debut with a try. The highly-rated 22-year-old, who represented Jamaica at the Sevens World Cup, provided a telling contribution from the left wing and McAvoy was full of praise for the debutant.
“Jack first came up to us a few years ago in pre-season. He’s got bags of raw talent,” he said.
“He’s a lad from the area who has gone on to do amazing things in Sevens; competing internationally and, most recently, competing professionally in America. We’ve been really proud of him and have watched his career with interest.
“When I saw he was back and that there was an opportunity for him to come and play with us, it was a no-brainer. He can give us a big boost and hopefully we can help him prepare for the next step, whether that’s Sevens or 15s.”
There were also memorable moments for stalwarts Michael Klichowicz, who was winning his 50th cap, and Jamie Futcher, who was winning his 200th.
McAvoy was delighted two of his most impressive performers were able to mark the occasion with a positive result, with Futcher impressing from the start and Klichowicz making an impact from the bench.
He said: “Jamie’s been part of that core group that have come up from minis, through to colts and all the way through the ranks. It was special to have him back post injury, especially with Mick (Newbury manager and Jamie’s father) there on the touchline.
“Klichy has shown absolute spells of magic for us since he’s come back from South Africa. He’s a fantastic individual, he brings energy and he’s the sort of person and player that his teammates want to be around.”
Blues begin their tussle with the top four with a trip to London Irish Wild Geese on Saturday.
McAvoy’s side won the reverse 19-17; at the time, it was Irish’s first defeat of the campaign and it proved Newbury’s last win for three months.
Despite the two teams differing fortunes since that memorable clash in October, which McAvoy described as one of the best moments of his tenure, the Blues boss is confident his side can cause another upset against the promotion-chasers.
“We’re expecting them to be coming out all guns blazing but we think we’ve got a good plan for how to beat them,” he said.
“We’re entering a difficult block, and it’ll also be a bit stop-start with the Six Nations, so we’ll have to be smart about how we train.
“I think the boys are really excited for this one. Hazelwood is a great place to go and play and they’ve got great support, so we’re looking forward to it.
“We’re hoping we can kick on now and get as many points as possible.”
Newbury’s next home match, the visit of second-placed Winchester on February 17, will be the club’s annual Pink Day; Blues, who will wear a changed strip, have never lost a Pink Day fixture, with the club raising money for Cancer Research UK as well as local causes.
Blues can also look forward to a trip across the Channel to take on unbeaten league leaders Jersey in March before travelling to local rivals Reading on the final day, although McAvoy and his side will be hoping there is not too much resting on the campaign’s finale.