Newly-promoted Cantabs opened up their season in the London 3NE with a tough fixture away to Norwich. It was thought that the last time our 1st XV had played Norwich was probably close to 30 years ago. This fixture, pre leagues, was one of the best on the calendar and used to feature our top two sides in an annual outing for the Club. Norwich had finished fourth in this division last season, and were expecting to do well again, having enjoyed pre-season wins against Lowestoft & Yarmouth, and West Norfolk.
Cantabs had a new pairing in the Centres with Drew Tilley and Finlay Wilson, son of Cambridge stalwart Steve Wilson, but the pack was close to that which finished the previous campaign.
Cantabs kicked off on a well-grassed, but firm pitch in bright sunshine. Norwich promptly knocked on and then compounded the error by going offside, in an attempt to recover the situation. Ali took a pot at goal from just outside their 22, to the left of the posts, and missed left. Early play rather set the pattern with Norwich centres looking dangerous, but Cantabs pack dominating at close quarters and particularly so in the scrum.
It was from a Cantabs scrum in our own half that Ali made his trade-mark blindside run, finally getting the ball out to Josh, on the wing, who was pushed into touch deep inside the Norwich 22. Norwich cleared the danger this time but Cantabs were making all the early running and a great kick from Adrian found touch again ten metres out from the Norwich line. The home side made a mess of the lineout failing to gather cleanly and just managed to touch the ball down in the dead ball area. From the resultant five yard scrum, Cantabs pushed their opponents back and Richard Ford at the base of the scrum touched down for our first try after only 10 minutes. Ali from the right of the posts made the score 0 to 7, and Norwich were looking shell-shocked.
Cantabs soon powered back into the Norwich half and a lovely kick ahead by Josh as he made thirty metres on the right. This was soon followed by some great inter-passing by Paul, Adrian, Dean, and Cyril, culminated in Josh just being tackled into touch five metres short of the line. Cantabs knocked on in the lineout, and Dean suffered a bad knock to the shoulder requiring treatment. From the resultant Norwich scrum, on their five metre line, our pack simply shoved them off the ball, controlled the push and this time Rich Ford came off the back of the scrum from three/four metres out to touch down for his second try. The kick was just that bit more difficult for Ali, but after twenty minutes the score was now Norwich 0 Cantabs 12.
Norwich finally woke up and started to threaten with some strong running from their inside centre and good back up play from the pack. Cantabs were defending well but gave a way a couple of penalties which enabled the home side to find touch just five metres out with 30 minutes gone. Cantabs cleared the threat and won possession from the second lineout on our 22. Adrian kicked long and found touch well inside the Norwich half on the right. However, the Norfolk men were able to take a quick throw and this time their outside centre danced down the left wing, cut inside twice to beat our cover defence and touched down fifteen metres left of the post. Luckily for Cantabs their kicker missed, but Norwich were on the board after 33 minutes; score now 5 to 12.
Norwich were now back in the game with a vengeance. Cantabs were making too many handling errors trying to move the ball out of our own half, and were then penalised in their own 22. Norwich went for touch again when the kick for goal looked straightforward. It proved to be the right decision however, because their no 4 jumper won cleanly from the resultant 5 metre throw, the ball was moved centrally, and the second crash ball saw their inside centre in under the posts. No mistake with the conversion this time and with just two minutes of the half level, it was all square 12 points each.
Those two minutes proved disastrous for Cantabs, They held out easily but suffered three bad injuries, which lead to those players taking no further part in the game.
Half time came with no further score, but at that point Dean James' shoulder had put him out of the game and Adrian moved from 10 to 9, with Josh taking over at fly-half. Finlay limped off with knee ligament damage to be replaced by Skeggsy at Centre. Tom Conder retired to the bench with a suspected broken nose, which brought Isaia into the fray in the front row. Charlie moved to blindside and Jonnie took Tom's place at 2nd row. Francois came onto replace Josh on the wing
All these positional changes rather put us on the back foot and for the first quarter of the second half Norwich seemed to camp in our half. To their credit Cantabs defended very well, giving the Norfolkmen only one shot at goal, which frankly they should have taken. Whenever we did win the ball we seemed to be penalised, and although our scrum was just as dominant, the referee even started to penalise us in this area as well. Cantabs were keeping it tight and using Perksy and Chris Walliker more and more to knock seven bells out of their forwards, in an attempt to keep the ball in hand.
30 minutes into the second half and a rare penalty to Cantabs saw us make touch on the right thirty metres out. We won the lineout and started the rolling maul moving all the way towards the Norwich line, before we knocked on ten metres out. Norwich won the scrum which we wheeled before the ball went in! However, the referee awarded us the put in anyway - what a gift!
Our scrum did their job so well, the Norwich pack just disintegrated, as we walked the ball over their line. Richard dived down on the ball, and missed! We should have scored, the referee could have awarded a penalty try, but we were adjudged to have knocked on in the dead ball area and Norwich breathed again.
Norwich did not get back into the game after that, Francois started to threaten down the right wing, the referee continued to confuse and amaze, but Cantabs did not get another chance either. When the referee blew for time I think both sides were rather pleased with the draw.
Injuries to Dean and Finlay are a real concern (sorry Tom, I think your nose looks better that way). Some of the Cantabs squad were looking a shade unfit, and doubtless our coaches will be working on that. We do have Irish James, Warren and James Walton to come back in over the next two weeks, and Sami returns in October, but if we are to push for the top in this league we will need a slightly larger squad of first team players. Norwich will undoubtedly be in contention along with Wisbech, but Cantabs will have worried a few sides in this division by returning unbeaten.
Next week's game is away at Beccles; our first home match being against Harlow on the 29th when Jeff dusts off the BBQ and you are all invited to our first fixture in the London Leagues for nearly twenty years.