When the Cambridge Exiles fixture comes around, it is always one to get down and watch. For the last few years the men in Blood and Sand have provided some nail-bitingly close encounters, but it's never been one we've been able to clinch. Last season provided the infamous last-second charge down to lose us the game, the closest we had been to winning a league fixture for a long long while. This season however, Cantabs is storming. With an influx of new players, our 2nd and 3rd teams have upped their games and started to win the fixtures that teased us before. We went over to Volac Park in October and managed to record a 27-19 win, a result we were very proud of. However it felt that on that day Cambridge were not at their best, and that the return fixture would be a little more challenging.
So to Saturday, and the pre-game atmosphere was very positive. Maybe inspired by England's superb win the previous night, perhaps eager to play following Walden's late cancellation last week or just happy to find themselves in the sun on a decent pitch... either way the players were focused and controlled throughout the warm up.
Cantabs kicked off and the game was underway. A strong start for us, as an early scrum was awarded and we were delighted to see that the smaller, more mobile Cantabs pack had the power and technique to turn over the bigger Cambridge lads - helped out by Rich Ford in the second row who was making a welcome return after a month out due to injury. A couple of minutes into the game and a catch and drive attempt was illegally disrupted. Simon stepped up and sent the ball through the posts to secure an early lead. 3-0
Before Cantabs had a chance to relish in their early points, Cambridge launched their attack. With a speedy little no. 9 and a strong fly-half, they managed to find a gap and put the hands into action. The first try of the day for the opposition player in the number 3 shirt (Cambridge's MOTM in my book) and we were under our posts realising that we were going to have to work hard to earn a victory today. 3-5
An early blow for Cantabs - flanker Steve, a venomous tackler and athletic jumper pulled up with a leg injury. On comes Ed Scott-Dickins a little earlier than expected. Cantabs were working hard on their defence, with Aaron bossing things from scrum-half and tacklers performing their duties. Cambridge kicked well and kept forcing us to work back from deep - the back three of Robbo, Craig and Chris taking care of the high balls coming their way. In open play Nat managed to strip one Cambridge player of the ball and a couple of phases later our resident Toff strode over for his first of the day, putting Cantabs back in the lead. Cracking conversion from Simon. 10-5
Again Cambridge retaliated and before long we were behind the line discussing how to adapt our play in order to shut down the Exiles attack. 10-10
There seemed to be a little patch were things were going against us. Our strong scrum was not being rewarded and Aaron was pinged a couple of times for being offside. Add a good number of penalties for offences at the break down and Cantabs didn't get much of the ball for a good 15/20 minutes, Cambridge kicking their penalties and using their line out well. Before long they had broken through and scored again, and a great charge from Chris Kelly stopped the opposite 10 from converting a relatively simple kick. 10-15
Then we started to up the ante in attack. Forwards started running in support of backs - Rich, Laurence and Matt all making themselves a nuisance for the Exiles defenders with hard running on strong lines. Aaron and Simon controlled things perfectly and before long the mayday call was put in. A mixed-up back line saw the ball move from the breakdown out to the hands of Tozer, who drew his man and passed to Alex White. Alex turned on the pace and closed down the final 20 meters to the try line, scoring in the corner. A missed penalty attempt was the only other moment to note and the half-time whistle went with the score at 15-15.
My moment of the first half was probably seeing Keith put in one of those tackles that only Keith can... hadn't seen one of those for a while.
No changes at half time, just a reminder of our game plan and a re-fuel of our determination. It wasn't long into the second half that Lord Wilson was off again, and we found ourselves celebrating a classy second score from the centre. No conversion but a top start to the second half, giving us the boost we needed. 20-15
Scrums were still settled, but the line-out which has been troubling us for the last few weeks was still an issue. Maybe it is the inexperience of the thrower, or a lack of comms through the pack but we did lose out on a few occasions where we couldn't secure our own set piece. This is something we need to improve going forwards. Luckily for Cantabs, Matt Taylor was at the back of the line out brimming with controlled aggression and ready to shut down any loose ball that fell Cambridge's way - he was having a good little battle with his opposite number which Sir felt he needed to have words about. From one of these lost line outs, the Cambridge no. 10 put in a fine dink over our backs, as they realigned to defend. We thought Fin had it covered, but then maybe we forgot that the ball was egg-shaped. It bounced up away from Fin and into the hands of the chasing Cambridge player. A well worked try, even if luck had played a small part. 20-20
20 mins to go and the score still tied. This is where rugby games come to life. Craig had been running hard and nimble all day, making plenty of yardage but not quite securing the score this week. He gave way to Finn C on the wing, who came on and showed his worth, with a few hard runs and solid defence. Rich was feeling the pain of being back on the pitch and took a rest, with Ed going to 2nd row, me moving to 8 and Darren coming on at tight-head. Kicking had disappeared from the game now and penalties were being taken quickly while tackling was getting frantic. One high tackle from Cambridge gifted Cantabs with a penalty inside the opposition 22 which was taken quickly. An inspired crash from Ed broke through the defence. With Tozer in support Ed popped the offload away and Tozer grounded the ball between the posts. A fast paced and deserved score, with an easy conversion for Simon. 27-20
Again though Cambridge were having none of it and it was but minutes later that the Cambridge scored again, through their classy no. 3 (who was definitely not a prop!). They wormed their way down the left wing and caught us on the back foot. No easy conversion attempt though, and the Cambridge kicker missed his 5th kick of the day. 27-25
10 minutes to go and this was anyone's game. Our line-out let us down again and we were deep in our own half having to defend hard. Wave after wave of big runners charged at us and Cambridge secured a penalty which they took quickly. Cantabs defended heartily, each player putting his body between the Exiles and the try line. A few phases later though. and another penalty against us for offenses at the breakdown - 7 or 8 metres away from our line. Now, I felt like I had gotten back onside, but when the opposition 10 took a quick penalty and made the charge the ref told me I was offside. Well, I tackled him anyway and as I expected was rewarded with an early end to the game. A yellow card yes, but I would rather refer to it as a try-saving, game-winning professional foul. Cantabs responded superbly to my departure and pressured the Exiles until they made a mistake. Once we were out of the red zone it was a case of playing an error free final 5 minutes and this is exactly what we did. The final score 27-25.
A great game of rugby to be involved in, it was as close as they come, played in good spirits and thoroughly enjoyable. Another bonus point win keeps us a comfortable 2nd place in the league (will anyone do us a favour and beat Bury?) and two wins this season over Cambridge Exiles shows a clear progression for Cantabs 2nd team rugby.
Several players stood out to me this week. Matt Taylor has settled in at Cantabs nicely and is a very impressive player, I'm hoping Coach doesn't notice this too soon or he may be promoted to the 1st team! Chris Kelly put in maximum effort all game and made sure to distract the Exile's place kicker time after time. Finn Carter made a strong impact from the bench, he now lives in London but travels back to play with us because of the social atmosphere in the club & our posher, more irritating Fin played a blinder.
However my Man Of The Match this week was Ed Scott Dickins, who put it all in this week... tackling like a demon and running hard, smart rugby.
Dick Of The Day... well, I think I did us a favour but I'm aware that this pretty much has to be me.