It was 2nd place South Woodham Ferrers against 3rd place Cantabs in deepest Essex. For Cantabs it was all change at half back. Nick Denham moving to scrum half and Euan taking Hayward's place at No 10. Alex Rayner was a late withdrawal so Jonny Regan took over at full back and Laurence Jones, Dan Searle, Rick Peters, Nathan Davenport and 18 year old Will McFadyen moved up from the 2nds to complete the squad.
SWF had only lost one game and were starting only their third game of the season at home, following a long spell when their pitch was unplayable. With all the changes it was going to be a hard task for Cantabs to take anything from this game.
Cantabs kicked off up the slope towards the clubhouse on a damp but windless day. The very first scrum saw our invincible front row scattering the SWF pack. Their prop came out of it worst and following a lengthy delay, had to withdraw from the game. Jamie Williams also won the first two lineouts, one of ours, one of theirs. So, initially with the set pieces going our way, SWF were under pressure. Our tackling and rucking was fierce and the home club could not find the space to set their backs going. Isaia Barbieri set the tone with a strong charge into the SWF half but was penalised for not releasing. Two penalties against us pushed Cantabs deep into their own half, but a strong scrum saved the day for Cantabs. Our passing through the backs was looking ponderous however and it was clear the game could only be won up front.
SWF had the first chance of a score when yet another penalty was awarded 25 metres out. The kick was unsuccessful and Cantabs held on. Further penalties allowed SWF to make the corner but from the resulting lineout, their maul was halted by our pack.
Cantabs worked their way up-field. Jonny Heaver started the move with a quick tap out of his own 22, and suddenly Bloxham was clear. His jinking run got him to within a metre of the line, the ball came back and Pete Collins dived over through a melee of players to make the score. Nick Denham converted to make it 0 - 7 after eighteen minutes and we supporters were dreaming!
SWF piled on the pressure, and again forced their way into our 22.
We cleared but their No 10 forced us straight back into the same left hand corner. Again Cantabs' pack withstood the rolling maul. SWF were now right under our posts, but in their eagerness to score, they gave away a penalty. Euan kicked up to half way and Cantabs lived again. Now it was Cantabs turn, the penalty was awarded right in front of goal, on the 22 line. Perksy turned down the three points and elected to take the scrum. We forced their pack back at pace, and Sir awarded another scrum 15 metres from the line. Again we pushed them back, more control this time and SWF were penalised for breaking bind. Perksy again went for the jugular, this time from 7 metres out. Jamie went for the line but SWF were up to it, and the chance had gone.
SWF were next to attack with a dangerous run down their left. Paul Pudney took a big hit and somehow stayed on the pitch, when he probably needed a break. Play resumed and SWF came straight back at us; the traffic was all one way now. Their winger kicked ahead right up to our line, Regan gathered the ball under extreme pressure and we were now defending right under the posts, but in an attempt to win the ball illegally their 2nd row was awarded a ten minute break. Euan kicked for touch and the half ended with us still ahead.
No changes at half time, and Cantabs now had the slope in their favour. The SWF restart kick failed to make ten metres, so their pack had to face our scrum again. However, it was SWF who made all the running initially and Cantabs were soon defending in their own 22. SWF won a penalty 10 metres out and went for the crash ball; Cantabs dealing with that one. It took almost ten minutes before Cantabs got back over the halfway line, such was the pressure now. We seemed to be tiring and SWF were being encouraged to attack wide by their crowd. However it was an opportunist hack through down the left that finally brought the try. Our defence was stretched and could only restrict the try to 15 metres in from the touchline. The conversion failed, but the writing was on the wall at 5 - 7.
The very next SWF attack, also down the left, gave them a two man overlap and our cover defence was too slow to get across. The try was closer in this time, but the conversion was again pushed wide. SWF were now ahead at 10 - 7, 52 minutes into the game and Cantabs were looking beaten.
Glen made his changes, Nathan Davenport on for Jonny Heaver, Dan Searle for Laurence and Will McFadyen moved to scrum half, with Paul Pudney finally replaced and Nick Denham reverting to fullback. SWF attacked again and were held up over the line. We defended the first scrum well but SWF won a penalty for a high tackle just ten metres out. They tapped, their big runner went for the line, but just as he was tackled he passed low around our man out to the left winger, who scored unopposed in the corner. This time their flyhalf made a good conversion to make the score 17 - 7.
Cantabs now seemed to get their second wind and our big men started to make ground. Tom Bailey made a break on the left was tackled illegally. Perksy elected for the scrum, but Tom had to leave the field, bringing Jonny Heaver back on at hooker. Cantabs won another penalty and this time Perksy elected to go for goal. Nick obliged from 20 metres and we were back in the game at 17 - 10.
SWF had another chance to score with a long range penalty but again missed and Cantabs were now desperate to get into the opposition half. A penalty kick to the left hand corner gave us the chance, but our maul was disrupted and SWF cleared the danger. Rick Peters took a knock to the head, Dan Searle moved to right wing, Laurence was back on but our chance had gone and SWF pinned us back into our 22. We tried to pass our way out from under our own posts. Interception and try under the sticks. Four tries to SWF, and a bonus point to them. The conversion somehow missed, but SWF did not care as the final whistle went. Final score 22 - 10. Cantabs could only dream on what might have been.
So we lost both games against South Woodham Ferrers and those wins will probably hand them promotion. Cantabs on their day are a match for any team in the division but with so many changes in key positions it was never going to happen. The ripple effect on the teams meant that all three Cantabs sides started the New Year with losses. We can only improve from here on.
My man of the match was Jonny Heaver; what a season he is having; wherever he is asked to play he does a job and today he was at his niggling, disrupting best.