NEWLY-promoted Saltash will go into their Western Counties West campaign boosted by a last-gasp pre-season win over Devonport Service at the Rectory on Friday night.
The Ashes narrowly triumphed 21-19 in wet conditions thanks to a late try by Tom Martin, which Ryan Cruickshanks calmly converted.
It might have only been a pre-season game, where both teams experimented and made plenty of changes, but beating a club that were promoted out of Western Counties West last term will give Saltash belief that they can be competitive in that division.
“We like to have a pre-season game against Services pretty much every year and they have always been tight games,” said Ashes captain Lewis Wells. “They (Services) obviously had a fantastic season last year and got promoted so there is a league difference between us, so for us to get the win will really boost us for the season.”
Wells added: “We’ve been hit and miss with players this summer – we’ve lost a few and gained a few – and we are trying to change the way we play and introduce new things to new players. Although we were missing a few players tonight, what we have done in training shone through.”
Services, who were 19-7 up at one point, did not play anywhere near like they had done seven days earlier against higher league Ivybridge. Conditions did not help, but Devonport made too many errors.
Head coach Mike Lewis hopes his team will learn from the loss ahead of their debut in South West One.
They were not helped on Friday night by picking up a number of injuries, with Tommy Pullinger, Phil Greenside and Sam Carr all having to go off with what looked like serious problems to add to those they suffered against Ivybridge.
“This has been a torrid week for us,” said Lewis. “After the Ivybridge game we almost thought about giving the boys the whole week off and cancelling this game, but we don’t want to be that team that cancels a fixture.
“We did have quite a few niggles after last week, as the Ivybridge game was a really tough fixture and it was almost like the pinnacle of our pre-season.
“We have gone into this week and everything’s been a bit flat – the boys haven’t put 100 per cent in. I think we’ve also picked up about eight or nine injuries this week alone to go with the three we had before. I think we are now up to 13 injuries in pre-season now.”
He added: “We did talk about this before the game, but when you play against Ivybridge it is easy to motivate yourself, but, with no disrespect to Saltash, they are a league below. We knew they were a great team and we told the boys that, but just because they are in the league below us the boys came with a different attitude. That was the issue – our line speed in defence wasn’t good enough and our decision-making on that final pass wasn’t good enough. They know what they have done wrong and you do want to learn your lessons.
“In pre-season we are not fussed about results in games – win, lose or draw we are not fussed – we just need to get those little things right.”
The conditions did make the ball tough to handle, but Services dropped it too many times, particularly in the first half, to win.
Lewis said: “Our last message before we went out was to build into the game as the conditions were going to be different to what we have experienced so far and we might not be able to play the fast-flowing game we have played before. But if one off-load worked then everyone wanted to try it and it turned out to be a bit of scrum-fest in the first half.”
He added: “I’m not disappointed, but we did expect people to make the right decision tonight. However, maybe it might get them in check for next week. Maybe this will be the reality check that we needed.”
The game was only minutes old when highly-rated teenage Services centre Pullinger had to go off with a serious-looking injury to his shoulder and arm.
Royal Navy player Rhys Williams did have the first good run of the match in the 17th minute, but he slipped on the wet surface after cutting through Saltash’s defence.
And on 24 minutes, Saltash took the lead when lock Joe Ronayne intercepted a poor Services pass in his own half and managed to run nearly 70 metres to score under the posts for an easy conversion for Cruickshanks.
Cornwall flanker Wells nearly doubled their lead on 32 minutes, but the ball slipped out on his grasp as he burst through under the posts.
Services made too many errors first half, but they did equalise just before the break when Matty Anstis put Greenside in to score in the right corner. Veteran fly-half Anstis added the conversion from the touchline to make the half-time score 7-7.
Both sides made changes at the break and on 52 minutes Services went 12-7 up when replacement Toby Moss scored on the right following a scrum on the other side.
And the hosts went 19-7 up in the 61st minute when Callum Perkins scored a fine individual try on the right, which youngster Harrison Slade brilliantly converted.
But five minutes later Saltash cut the gap when experienced scrum-half Olly Mulberry scored from close range and Cruickshanks converted.
In the dying minutes Services picked up a yellow card and Saltash pressed. The visitors were held up over the line in the 79 minute, but they did score from the resultant five-metre scrum when they went right and Mulberry put Martin in to touch down. Cruickshanks converted to put Saltash two points ahead.
Services had one last chance to win. They won the ball from the re-start but were eventually penalised and Saltash kicked out to seal the victory.