Unbeaten Cantabs entertained Harlow in the first London Divisional match at Sedley Taylor Road for nearly 20 years. Harlow were still seeking their first win of the season and at the pre-match BBQ your President predicted a straightforward home win - how wrong he was!
Chris and Warren resumed their successful partnership of last season at 2nd row, and Sami appeared in the 1st XV for the first time in this campaign. On paper, this was probably the strongest line-up that we had seen this season. Richard Ford moved to the bench following an ankle injury and was joined by Francois and Tom.
Harlow kicked off into the breeze, but in bright sunshine and a well-grassed playing surface. The Cantabs faithful had enjoyed a Jeff Railton BBQ and were lubricated by the guest ale; Ginger Tosser (some say named after our bar steward). The kick was collected but we were penalised for not releasing, and Harlow took the penalty from 25m; 3 points to Harlow after one minute's play.
Warren was soon involved, with a good catch and run, releasing Sami on the left wing. Harlow were penalised and Josh kicked deep into the Harlow 22. From the lineout, Cantabs brought Warren into play, and another strong run saw the ball secured by Isaia, The ball was shipped out to the left where Charlie rushed through the defence like a wing forward diving in at the corner. Ali's conversion kick hit the post and rebounded into play, but Cantabs were up and running at 5 to 3 after just 4 minutes.
Harlow's pack looked big enough but early on Cantabs had the upper hand in the scrums. Warren was being used to knock holes in the Harlow defence and his early aggression led to a penalty 30m out, but Ali's kick drifted wide. Harlow made good progress and kicked deep into our half, but Ali caught the ball cleanly just outside the 22, and ran back at Harlow, ghosting past six men in red and green. Both Paul and Sami had good runs on their respective wings, but Cantabs wasted possession in each case.
Harlow fought their way back into the Cantabs half, and tried for a drop goal from outside our 22. Cantabs were penalised for offside and the Harlow kicker punted the ball high through the posts, and onto the railway; 5 to 6 and all Cantabs early endeavour was cancelled out with 18 minutes gone.
Cantabs pressure saw Cantabs back in the Harlow 22, but a badly directed throw, gave Harlow the chance to run the ball the length of the pitch, deep into our 22. Three or four players were slow to get back to their feet after some frantic running and defending, but Ben James suffered the worst knock in tackling the left winger and left the field; Rich Ford took over at No 8. Harlow won the scrum 10m from our line but we took the ball against the head and cleared the danger.
Harlow then won a penalty just inside their own half, failed to find touch, but Isaia was penalised for not retreating 10m and Harlow got a second chance and a shot at goal. This time the ball drifted to the right of our posts from 35m, but their kicker was certainly striking the ball well.
Cantabs forwards were taking the ball into the tackle at this stage but generally not retaining possession, and the Cantabs faithful, and some of our backs were getting somewhat frustrated. Good play from Dan Searle and Isaia put us deep into the Harlow 22; Rich Ford powered forward but came to an abrupt halt three metres from the line right in front of the posts. The Cantabs support was not there however and Harlow cleared the danger once more. At that point with 5 minutes to half time, Ben came back on and Rich retired back to the touchline. A very timely entrance as it happens, because a scrum deep in the Harlow 22, saw Ben speed through on the blindside to touch down in the left hand corner. Ali slotted the conversion from the touchline; 12 - 6 to Cantabs just 2 minutes from half time. That remained the score as the half finished.
Sami took a break at halftime, with Francois making the natural replacement on the left wing. Some good forward play from Cantabs soon after the restart saw the rolling maul come into play, with the ball moved from the Harlow 22, right up to the line, where first Charlie and then Isaia just failed to make the line; the latter adjudged to have knocked on. Harlow's scrum held firm this time and the danger was cleared. For the first time in two seasons, Cantabs scrum was being matched!
Harlow No 8 was now looking menacing and his strong run took the ball into our 22, out wide past a despairing tackle, then when it seemed easier to score in the corner, he cut back inside and was swallowed up by our defence. Francois stripped the ball, and then sprinted back down the left touchline, evading three tackles before being bundled into touch on the halfway line.
Harlow were next to score with a very well struck penalty from 45m; 12 - 9 and twenty minutes to go. Cantabs then brought Rich Ford on for Skeggsy, Ben moving to blindside, and Francois gave way to Sami. The lineouts continued to frustrate, we were now winning neither our own or their ball. At one point on a crooked throw, Harlow elected for the lineout (no surprise there!). Then with Harlow pressing hard, Isaia transgressed at the ruck, and Harlow kicked the penalty from right in front on our 22; 12 - 12 and still 15 minutes to go.
A kick for touch was well fielded by Paul in his own half; he moved inside and released the supporting Ali, wide on the right. He ran at the Harlow winger, chipped the ball immaculately over his head and was first to the ball to touch down in the corner. This time the conversion failed, but it was 17 - 12.
Time and again Harlow pressed, Tom and Skeggsy replaced Warren and Ben, but some frantic defending from some tired looking Cantabs forwards saw us pinned in our own 22. Harlow turned down an easy penalty with 5 minutes to go, then another easy one only two minutes from time. Our lineouts were just giving the ball to them, and at one point Harlow took a scrum against the head. This seemed to wake up our forwards, as after that Harlow failed to make any serious in-roads. However, it was a relieved Cantabs team that greeted the final whistle.
This win moves up to within one point of the divisional leaders, but our inferior points difference sees the team in sixth place. Next two games are crucial; away next week to South Woodham Ferrers, then home to Upminster on the following Saturday. Both of these opponents are in the top four and we will need to play better to come through those two fixtures with any points. There are players lacking fitness at this point in the season and doubtless our coaches will be working on this.
Positives to take away: Ali caught and ran very well and is certainly a match winner. Drew and James Walton tackled well and took the ball into contact well. Perksy and Dean are getting closer to returning; options at prop would certainly be a big plus. However, Cantabs 1st XV remain unbeaten and only Norwich can boast that now in this division.