Rosslyn Park’s National League One title hopes took a severe dent on Saturday after a 36-21 defeat at Cinderford.
Out-played and out-fought by fired-up, five-try host, Park cannot have any complaints about this defeat.
Despite a good start, playing with the wind at their backs, it ended up as a rare poor performance, and Ed Lewis-Pratt’s brace of tries and 11 points off Ross Laidlaw’s boot were not enough.
Park kicked off and the opening exchanges were played out in the home team’s half, where a good run by Luke Campbell ended in Cinderford conceding a penalty - Laidlaw’s well-struck effort made a difficult kick look routine to give the visitors a 3-0 lead.
Cinderford soon came back, and Park were penalised with a free-kick at the first scrum, were penalised again - but Mark Davies missed a straightforward kick, and Park could breathe again.
A difference between the two sides soon became apparent - whereas Cinderford clung to the ball like limpets, Park became their own worst enemies by constantly surrendering possession, either by mis-handling or by kicking possession away to allow their opponents to run back at them.
Cinderford took the lead after 13 minutes, working the ball wide to speedy winger Lloyd Stapleton whose unconverted try in the corner was aided and abetted by poor defending.
Park came back, gaining a penalty on half way, which Laidlaw kicked to touch inside the home 22 to set up a strong attack.
A robust run from Nev Edwards took his side to the 5m line, from where Park tried to drive over.
With the referee signalling a penalty advantage, scrum half Jack Gash tried a wide pass that Laidlaw’s outstretched fingertips just failed to hold, but play came back for the penalty which Laidlaw chipped over to put his side back in front at 6-5.
Cinderford still enjoyed a clear advantage in terms of possession and a good attack earned them a penalty that was kicked to touch.
They won the ball at the lineout and, after Park had repulsed their initial surge, they quickly passed the ball along the line for prop Nick Selway to crash over by the posts, Davies converting to put the home side back in front at 12-6.
An excellent penalty, well-struck from some 40 metres out wide, saw Laidlaw reduce the arrears to 12-9 - only for Park to concede a poor try almost from kick off.
Again kicking for position, the ball came back to them with interest and was promptly sliced into touch well inside Park territory.
The error was compounded by some poor defending as home centre Kai Done skipped in for a try, converted by Davies to stretch the lead to 19-9.
To their credit, Park came back with an all-out attack through several phases. It looked a vain effort when stout defending saw them again lose possession, but they recaptured it, worked it out wide on the right and full-back Lewis-Pratt ran onto the ball and got round the defence, Laidlaw converting on the stroke of half-time.
If a scoreline of only 19-16 flattered Park, then the game was still there to be won in the second half if they could reproduce the sort of form they had shown thus far this season.
Instead, Park received kick-off, booted the ball straight back to Cinderford who accepted the invitation to attack and a line-out catch and drive saw hooker Tom Bozzard credited with the try, Davies converting, 26-16.
If that was bad enough, it was compounded five minutes later when a simple switch move saw the hooker again cross the line for his side’s fifth try, Davies again nailing the conversion for 33-16.
It looked as if Park were now playing only for pride, and they showed they still had it as they battled to find a way to score. Gaining a penalty in front of the posts, Laidlaw hoisted it to touch to set up another attack.
A powerful run up the right by substitute Charles Broughton nearly bore fruit, and before the home defence could settle, Lewis-Pratt took the ball on to score in the corner.
An ‘impossible’ conversion kick by Laidlaw hit the inside of the far post but bounced back into play, which just about summed up his side’s afternoon.
At 21-33, with still more than a quarter of the game left, there was still a sliver of hope, but three minutes later Park conceded a further penalty and Davies accepted the three points on offer to stretch the margin to 15 points – more than two converted tries – with only 20 minutes remaining.
Park tried, but there seemed to be more effort than conviction as the clock increasingly became Cinderford’s 16th man.
In the closing minutes, Park’s Laurence Ovens spoiled an otherwise strong performance when frustration got the better of him and he was yellow-carded by the referee for a line-out offence.
It wasn’t the start to the new year that Park would have wished for, but credit to a superb performance by Cinderford.
Park, who host struggling Cambridge next weekend, remain in third place, just one point ahead of Esher and 12 points off the top.