Our penultimate league match was against league leaders Norwich who had to win to keep alive their chance of the London 3NE championship, but they had already been promoted. Cantabs had been the only side to take points from the Norfolk side, at their ground, in the opening match of the season when we held on for a 12 all draw. Norwich brought a good crowd of supporters with them to celebrate the end of their successful season. For Cantabs, our unbeaten home run was in danger. Dean James had still not recovered from his hand injury so Richard Kemp resumed at scrum half. Vice captain, Dan Searle was also an absentee, with an infection, so Bevan Whyte moved to outside flanker. Simon Hallisey was also making his first team debut at outside centre.
In perfect rugby conditions, Cantabs kicked off towards the railway, and the Norwich crowd, who matched that of Cantabs in numbers, jeered as Irish James launched the ball straight into touch. But this gave the men in red an early close up look at our front row, and true to form, they didn't appear to enjoy the experience. Cantabs definitely started the stronger and dominated the early minutes with the aggression of our front five, making Norwich aware that the season was definitely not over for Cantabs. Norwich soon woke up and moved play into our 22 where we conceded a penalty, but elected to go for the corner and lost possession by knocking on. Sammi showed his strength and was nearly through but for a hand pulling him back by his shirt. Some good possession by the forwards, winning ruck after ruck brought play towards the Norwich 22, where we won a penalty for going over. Ali's kick from 30m was true and Cantabs opened their account with only 10 minutes gone.
Norwich were next to show promise through an incisive break by their impressive flyhalf who scythed through the Cantabs defence, just failing to get his pass away to their right winger. At this point in the match our scrum was causing mayhem in the Norwich pack but they were somehow holding onto possession and their fly half continued to impress. Irish James kicking game was also on song with some massive kick from hand winning good yardage.
It was a scrum to the left of the posts in the Norwich 22 which Rich Ford picked up at 8 and started a series of powerful drives from our forwards. Suddenly Irish James had the ball, looked to move right, found his way barred and switched back towards his forwards with a diagonal run past the entire Norwich pack and just made the line ten metres in from the corner on the left. A great try which Ali failed to convert, but Cantabs were now in front at 8 - 0; 16 minutes gone.
Our lineout, at this juncture was steeling the odd ball through Bevan and Richard, and just such a catch set up Irish for another giant diagonal kick from 10 metres inside his own 22 making touch on the right close to halfway. However, Norwich had sorted their lineout and their backs moved the ball smartly back towards our 22, where they won another kickable penalty, but again went for the corner. Their coach apparently had told his team to enjoy themselves and run the ball when they could. Cantabs were also joining in by appearing to want to run the ball out of danger. We tried this once too often, were caught holding on in the ruck and Norwich took a quick tap, their flyhalf showed us a clean pair of heels as he ran in from 20 metres to score to the right of the posts. Ali decided to charge at the conversion kick and seemingly did enough to disturb the kicker's concentration, as a straightforward chance was spurned. But with 28 minutes gone, the score was now 8 - 5.
Again, Cantabs, through Ali tried to run the ball out of danger, as Norwich continued to press hard. He was penalised for playing the ball on the ground when tackled, and Norwich found touch again 5m out. Cantabs defence stood firm, Sammi kicked to clear his line, but Norwich ran the ball straight back at us, and it took a great tackle from right winger Paul Graddage to save the day. Cantabs were struggling to impose themselves with handling errors preventing us moving into the Norwich half. Now the Norfolk men appeared to be well on top and the pressure told when Paul deliberately knocked on in an effort to stop our opponents' progress down their left wing. Sir, brandished the yellow card and we were a man short.
Norwich threatened to score again and it took massive tackles from first Sammi, then Warren to halt their progress. Were in not for a series of knock-ons from the men in red at crucial times, I think we would have gone behind. Cantabs, to a man, were defending as their lives depended on it, and somehow held Norwich at bay in their own 22. Then a memorable tackle from Francois, showing his strength, to take man and ball. Norwich changed their front row, and immediately seemed to reap the benefit in the scrum, taking one against the head to the delight of the Norfolk side of the pitch. Cantabs were under tremendous pressure, but as always our defence, and particularly our tackling, was holding Norwich back. And so the half finished, Cantabs holding out, just, and had the half gone another five minutes, I think we might have caved in to the pressure.
Charlie moved to prop at half time and our scrum settled down again. Francois put in another saving tackle on the wing to halt a Norwich attack, and this seemed to spur the men in blue on. We rucked and fought our way into the Norwich half, and although the scrums were being wheeled by both packs, Rich Ford and his counterpart were keeping possession at the back of the scrum. Richard Kemp found himself under huge pressure at scrum half and a lengthy halt in play was required to patch him up. Paul Graddage resumed his position on the wing.
Crucially though, Norwich were forced to make a change at hooker and this seemed to unbalance their scrum. Rich Ford was looking to run the ball at their defence and a combination of his aggression and a Cantabs scrum now on the ascendancy was keeping play in the Norwich half. Norwich were penalised for not retreating 10m as Rich ran the ball at them, then Francois and Ali started to run the ball back at Norwich through the middle. One such run from Francois, backed by Warren caused Norwich to foul, and Ali stepped up to kick us further in front from 30m. Now the score was 11 - 5 and a little breathing space for the home side.
The play was now all in the Norwich half and a further penalty was won 40m out Ali's kick failed this time and perhaps the right call would have been a kick to the corner to bring our rolling maul into play.
Cantabs were now doing all the pressing, first Chris Walliker, then Francois caused the Norwich defence problems then it was Perksy rampaging through the line like a bull. Finally, Norwich yielded, we won the penalty and from 25m Ali made no mistake this time; 14 - 5. Our mauling was causing the Norwich pack all sorts of problems; one drive in particular saw us gain 30m.
The Norwich flyhalf was not done, however and he brought play back into our 22, with a great penalty kick to touch. The play moved backwards and forwards from one side to the other as scrums were wheeled and errors made, but Cantabs eventually broke clear with a huge kick from Irish over the Norwich full-back's head and tackles from Paul and Sammi caused Norwich untold problems in their own 22. It took a frantic clearance to clear the danger, but Cantabs had regained the territorial advantage in the Norwich 22, with a lineout. This was won and moved the ball through the backs to Francois who nearly got clear on the left, but he was tackled into touch.
From a free kick, Chris Walliker took the ball forward 20m and Cantabs were back in the opponents 22. Cantabs seemed to be holding out well but Norwich were not to be denied a final moment of glory. Some great running brought them back into our 22, and Cantabs were finding it hard to stop their pack from scoring wide on the Norwich left. Finally, their backs were given the ball, which was shipped smartly right, allowing their right winger to dive over in the corner; 14 - 10 with seconds to go. The conversion failed, so that was the final play and the final score. A very hard fought game, and Cantabs fine home run continues.
Following a win at home against Sudbury, the Divisional Champions are therefore South Woodham Ferrers, whom we beat comprehensively two weeks previously. With one league game to go for Cantabs, also against Sudbury, next week at Sedley Taylor Road; a good result will mean we finish fourth in the league, a very commendable performance in our first season at this level.
Congratulations to promoted Norwich, maybe we can follow them next year - after all we have a net points advantage over them in the league of 150 points. My thanks also to the travelling committee members from Norwich, their partners and the many Norwich supporters who made the day memorable. We enjoyed their company and were pleased to be able to offer them our hospitality on Cantabs Ladies Day.
Also good of the Norwich team to emerge from cold showers (apologies for that) completely painted Cantabs blue, obviously in honour of our win, complete with white Smurf hats and white trousers.