7th March looked set to be a top day for Cantabs. With the 1st & 3rd XVs both at home entertaining the VP dinner crowd with tough league games needing to be won, the weather was glorious, spirits were high and it seemed that Spring had sprung.
Three league games left this season for the 2nd team but just one objective - to finish the season in the top spot. Bury 3's look to be our main competitors as they sit at the top, and with a game in hand we had some considerable point's difference to catch up to keep us safe should the title come down to a draw on league points. Our aim then, as we changed in the plush facilities over at Red Lodge, was to win by a 60 point margin. Ambitious yes, but sometimes there is nothing wrong with aiming high.
For the first time this year we found ourselves on a rather firm pitch - dried out by the recent good weather. Our warm up was sharp, and when it came to kick off Cantabs were focused and ready for the whistle. With the sun in our eyes and wind in our faces we knew the first half would be the tougher of the two and straight away the Mildenhall kicker took advantage - pinning us back on our try line with the opening play of the game. Immediately we were on the back foot with our defence being tested. Thankfully we held firm and a turnover allowed us to shake off the pressure. With ball in hand we moved up the pitch and it was only minutes later that Harri, making his first appearance for us at no. 9 darted through with one of his signature sidesteps and scored under the posts.
No time to get complacent though, these were a physical bunch! For the next twenty minutes we battled with Mildenhall around the park. They had some vicious tacklers and knew how to clear out a ruck, that's for sure. They battered us with big runners but could not find a way through our defence, with the likes of Jon, Dave, Oli and Shaggy putting in a real performance when the opposition had ball in hand.
Set piece was working phenomenally. With Jon throwing in, the line outs were operating exactly as they should - our two jumpers managing to outfox the opposition's one. We made plenty of yards through the catch and drive and a couple of cheeky moves which pulled off nicely too. As we entered the second quarter of the game, Shags plucked one of Jons throws out of the air and brought it down for the charge. 10 metres driving later and Jon, who had hands on at the back finished the move perfectly.
As time ticked on Mildenhall began to grow a little too raucous and seemed to lose their tempers a bit. Their number 8, one of the loudest and most aggressive members of their pack, was shown a yellow for over-exuberance and sent to chill out for 10 mins. During all this, Cantabs managed to remain cool and calm and by the time the half had played out we had scored another try. Simon's boot was on point and at half-time it was 21-0.
With conditions in our favour and minds still firmly set on a big win, the second half started exactly as we had hoped - the ball was spilt from the kick off and Skeggs casually waltzed through for his second try with only seconds gone on the clock. From here on, the game opened up as we began to turn the screw.
The scrum was working to perfection, the power from the second row and the technique of the front row were too much for the opposition and on many occasions they found themselves backpedalling at quite some speed. Mildenhall were no mugs at the set piece, but this week they had caught as at our best. With each scrum won, the Cantabs confidence and morale took a boost. 15 mins into the second half we decided to punish the opposition even further - fresh legs in the back row through Charlie Dellar, brute strength and power in Mark 'Beast' Coteman and impressive pace on the wing with Mateus as Toby, Oli and Lovett took a rest.
Our only weak point this week seemed to be receiving kick offs (and there were plenty of them!). Mildenhall's speedy little winger put pressure on each kick and at one point managed to gather the ball and pop it up to their loose-head running in support for a well worked try. The other score we conceded came from a series of penalties on our line which they eventually managed to bosh over - one got the feeling that Sir was feeling a little sorry for them at this point.
One major talking point of the game came 10 minutes before the end. I won't go into much detail, as it will be for the RFU to decide what punishment is necessary but it was a shame to see one of the Mildenhall players (in my eye's their best player in fact) see red and act in the way he did. Rugby is a sport which encompasses physicality and aggression, but it has no place for the mindless violence we saw at that point. Red card was issued, apologies from the rest of the Red Lodge team were given and the game continued.
With a final score of 78-12, I fear that I would make too many mistakes if I were to try and describe all the scores. I would however like to say that our big win was not against a bad team - it came from the 18 Cantabs men working hard together, putting into practice what has been learnt on the training ground. So for a change I am going to go for the 3rd team style player run down:
Tozer - On spectacular form at the moment, Ben shows that props do not need to be big lumps. With hands like a back, running like a back row and the discipline of a sensei, it's no surprise that Tozer is first on the 2nd XV team sheet week after week, year after year. His team-play this week was superb.
Jon - 1 x try. Returning from injury rest, Jon was our standout player this week. His communication all over the park, his physicality in contact, his vision and his hands were all exemplary. But the work rate that Jon puts in is incredible. One of Cantabs best assets, I fear we won't see him outside of the 1st team again this season.
Denman - 3 x try. Missing the first half of the season through injury, this week felt like the first time I have really been back at full strength. First try was a lineout on the opposition 22 which was sent long and given to Tozer on the charge, who made a few yards and slipped it back inside for me to finish. Second try was a piece of art - Jon securing the ball as he went to ground and pulling off a divine offload to me just inside our half. Naturally I ran the whole remaining length of the pitch to touchdown in the corner. Third try was a pick and go about ten meters out where I spied an opportunity to get the jugs in.
Jonny - Such a menace on the pitch, he steals ball at rucks, mauls and just spends the whole game making a nuisance of himself. A master at making the lineout calls and the real engine room in our scrum.
Toby - Shaggy has spent the majority of the season representing the 3rd XV, but he slotted right into place this week. With a fearless tackle and a hell of a lineout leap, it was an absolute pleasure to play alongside this long-haired scruffian.
Dave - A new player to Cantabs this season, Dave is one of those focused, hard-working back rows. His strength when running is mighty impressive and his alertness at the scrum stops anyone who thinks they can sneak past. This week Dave's tackling and work rate was top-notch.
Oli - A couple of nearly moments this week as Oli made some serious yardage in attack, unfortunately getting stopped just short each time. Youthful and talented, Oli is on the border between 1st and 2nd team and has put in some of the best tackles I have seen this season.
Skeggs - 3 x try. Managing to cool his temper recently and cut down his card count, Skeggs was on top form this week. Reliable in the line out, vicious in defence and alert in attack. First try was a powerful charge through the Mildenhall centres. Second try was the restart walk-through and to finish the game Skeggs touched down at 8 after some hard scrummaging put us over the line.
Dellar - 1 x try. Every time Charlie plays for the 3rd team he seems to win Man Of The Match and I can see why. Within minutes of coming onto the pitch, Dellar was over the line and celebrating a hard worked and physical try. His tackle count is huge and is another quality addition to the Cantabs family this year.
Beast - Another promotion from the 3rd team, Mark seems to get bigger each time I see him. Adding even more power to our scrum and absolutely flattening a couple of opposition players who had the misfortune of finding themselves in front of him, the highlight of Beast's game for me was laughing in the face of the brave little winger who decided it was a smart move to walk up and punch him!
Harri - 1 x try. Normally a winger (and what a winger at that) it was really pleasing to see Harri add the scrum-half string to his bow. All over the park in support, running when need be and working so well with the instructions from Simon at 10 - Harri did not look one bit out of place. Opened up the scoring too.
Simon - 9 x conversion. Another player on the fringe of 1st/2nd team, Simon had an absolute stormer this week. Converting 9 out of 12 of our tries with some testing wind, his biggest contribution to the game is his chat; constantly informing forwards where they need to be, directing the attacking moves and co-ordinating the defence. When Simon gets the ball at fly-half he takes it up to the opposition before releasing the players around him.
Drew - Drew had the unenviable task of battling with the ginger monster that was the opposition 12... no problem for this northerner! He spent the game shutting down their attacking options when defending and making holes in their line in attack. Drew's top quality chatter and considerable experience are invaluable when it comes to team talks and structuring the game plan.
Paul - It's a huge surprise that neither centre got on the score board this week. Pudney is a demon on the ball, but maybe this week he was feeling generous. He spent all game taking the ball at pace and drawing in defenders before moving the ball to his support runners. A rock in defence, no one came through the middle of us.
Lovett - Slightly out of his natural position on the wing perhaps, but a top performance none the less. He covered tackles and made ground in attack, but crucially also helped Cantabs back onto the front foot when Mildenhall kicked deep into our half.
Chris W - Try x 1. His first game at 15, it was great to see Westy back in the squad after a good while away with work. A terrific score in the second half when the ball was won by the forwards and shifted through 10, 12 and 13 before Chris hit the line at pace to finish the move.
Finlay - Try x 2. On top form as always, I don't know how this lanky toff manages to break tackles like he does. Can't remember the first, but the Lord's second try was a fantastic bit of teamwork, as the ball was moved from the secured breakdown through the hands of the front row who had formed a make shift back line and into Fins hands for a brilliant solo 40 metre finish. Fin spent all of Saturday night repeatedly telling me he would have had three if it wasn't for the abysmal pass I had thrown his way earlier in the game - for this I apologise!
Mateus - Having never played Rugby until last year, this is the first full season for Mateus and look how far he has come! He trains regularly and has that most important of qualities - he listens to the advice and instruction given to him. One of the nicest people I have met, he earned his place in the squad over some fierce competition by training hard. A solid performance from the little Brazilian.
Final score 78-12. We managed to hit our 60 point objective, and what a feeling! Imagine our delight later to find out that Bury had also lost to Cambridge, meaning we are now sitting comfortably at the top of the league.
I must say that Mildenhall and Red Lodge rugby team were a fantastic bunch of social lads. The most gracious of losers we have come across, they were unfortunate to catch us on a day where we had a big point to prove. They wished us the best of luck for the rest of the season and said that we were the best genuine second team they had come across. This was particularly pleasing for me, as Cantabs do make a particular effort to ensure that the teams we put out are a fair representation in a league where other teams sometimes fail to do so.
Man Of The Match - Jon Lineham. Quality, absolute quality.
Dick Of The Day - I'm afraid it has to go to Fin for failing to score that try and running the ball over the dead ball line... an action which ended up starting the scuffle (which in turn resulted in 10 stitches in Lovett's face)
A couple of special mentions this week - To Tony, who has spent the whole season helping out the second team with warm ups, water, subs and support yet receiving very little thanks. To the Mildenhall & RL physio who was quick to react and treat any player who needed it. To all the supporters that came and watched the match. And finally a mention to Roche Snr. who having witnessed the unpleasantness in the dead ball area came in windmilling like a rocker in a mosh pit - legend.
It was an honour to represent Cantabs with these lads this week.
We have 2 league games left - Saffron Walden 2's next week and Sawston the week after. We can win this league, but it is now in our own hands.