Cantabs entertained local rivals Wisbech in this London 3NE encounter, and the Fen Tigers were keen to get revenge for last season’s two defeats which had handed Cantabs the Eastern Counties title. Samisoni Kididromo did not make the start and Aussie Josh Schmidt was promoted from the bench to take over at flyhalf with James McCaughran filling the vacant spot at Centre. Richard Kemp got a late call up to the bench.
As usual, it promised to be a case of whether our forwards could out muscle the opposition and whether Cantabs could limit the movement of the Wisbech backs.
Cantabs kicked off in overcast but windless conditions towards the railway, in front of a good crowd, warmed by Mrs Wisbey’s beef cobbler. The pitch was sure to be heavy after a week of frost and rain but was perfectly playable. CUDRS also honoured the occasion with a full compliment of officials.
Cantabs had an early chance to test the Wisbech scrum, but initially the play was confined to the central area of the pitch with both sides trying to make headway. It was Wisbech who threatened first when a missed tackle let their backs go clear on the left, but a poor pass out to the wing only found touch. Cantabs lineout was working well with Rich Ford dominant in the air, winning good ball. At this stage also the Cantabs scrum had started to pressurise the Wisbech pack and their scrum-half did well to keep possession behind a retreating pack.
Rich Ford then broke clear of the scrum on halfway, made 20 metres and presented the ball well, only to see it killed by the opponents forwards. Dean took a quick tap, Wisbech were penalised for not retreating. Ali took the penalty kick on the edge of the 22, but it went well wide, Within a couple of minutes Cantabs were awarded another kick 5m outside the Wisbech 22 to the right of the posts and this time Ali made no mistake and it was 3 – 0 after 15 minutes.
From the restart, Charlie Searle caught the ball and kicked ahead. The Wisbech full-back gathered the kick and set off down the left wing but met a charging Charlie, who fiercely tackled him and ball into touch. The Cantabs forwards were now right on their game with Wisbech allowed no time on the ball. Blindside flanker Fraser was putting in some great work to deny Wisbech any space and our scrum was winning everything. Chris Walliker was trundling out the valuable metres every time he got the ball and setting up the phases. Dean’s passes were snapping out to Josh, but we seemed to still lack a little penetration in the backs. Wisbech were trying to push us back with some great kicking, but their running game was thwarted time and time again by the rampant Cantabs. One clearing kick was caught by Ali, who then kicked back with the outside of his right boot to make a glorious touch 30m away inside the Wisbech 22. Rich Ford won yet another catch from the Wisbech put-in and Cantabs were starting to dominate.
Wisbech were just not living with our scrum, and were finally penalised. Dean took the penalty out on the right wing, finding touch inside the 22, with a good left foot kick. Cantabs messed up the follow-up lineout with a crooked throw, but then simply drove Wisbech off the ball in the scrum. Wisbech still managed to work the ball back into Cantabs territory, were awarded a scrum, but were promptly driven off the ball yet again. Dean kicked for touch and we won the lineout again. Play then moved into the Wisbech 22 again, Dean made a break from a Cantabs scrum and presented the ball well. The forwards moved it smartly to the right where hooker Charlie Searle sped down the wing for an easy score in the corner. Ali could not make the kick, but after 34 minutes we were on the way at 8 – 0.
Fraser caught the restart kick and Cantabs forwards were there in support to put the Fen Tigers under more pressure. Chris and Isaia combined to make good ground and Wisbech were penalised for killing the ball. Warren was the next to show some aggression with a great run from a lineout move, going through two tackles and just failing to get the ball away to support. The damage was done however and Cantabs were deep inside the Wisbech 22. From the next phase Dean tried to muscle his way over the line, but was held up, giving us a scrum on 5m. This time there was no mistake, No 8 Richard Ford controlled the ball as the scrum moved relentlessly towards the Wisbech line. Richard dived forward unopposed and it was try number two. Ali easily converted and with a couple of minutes to go to halftime we were suddenly clear at 15 – 0.
No immediate changes made at half time, and Wisbech failed to make 10 with their restart kick and were immediately under pressure from our scrum.
Paul Graddage had another great run down the left touchline and damaged his knee temporarily in the process. Warren then saw red at something the Wisbech flanker did, and the referee showed him yellow, and for the next ten minutes he watched on as their pack had some respite in the scrums. Ten minutes into the half Cantabs were awarded a penalty just outside the 22, and Ali made the kick to make the score 18 – 0.
Meanwhile our lineouts were working exceptionally well. What Rich did not get Fraser started to win, and Wisbech were getting ragged. Our tackling and rucking was wearing them down and their backs seldom came into the game. Isaia made 20m with yet another of his drives through the defence. Suddenly following up on a Dean James kick over the defence, Paul Graddage broke clear on the left, kicked over the full-back’s head and beat him to the bouncing ball. Paul hacked the ball forward but it tantalisingly rolled out of play in the dead ball area, when he seemed certain to score.
Denman came on for Isaia, who left the field holding his right shoulder. Dan was replaced by Luke, and Warren rejoined the fray. His added power in the scrum meant normal service was resumed for the pack.
The respite for Wisbech was short lived. Irish drove them back with a great penalty kick into the Wisbech 22. We messed up the lineout this time by knocking on. But Wisbech could not hold onto the ball from their back-pedalling scrum and Dean was all over the Wisbech flanker to regain possession and went for the line. For the second time in the match he was held up over the line and Wisbech had another scrum to look forward to. Cantabs progress was halted this time. Dean promptly moved the ball out to Josh, Ali into the line had virtually no opposition as he touched down, Again he could not make the kick from out wide, but at 23 – 0 with quarter of an hour to go we were home and dry.
The Wisbech openside flanker was penalised, yellow carded and from the scrum option Rich Ford picked up, broke clear but instead of shipping the ball left to our overlapping backs he went for glory and the posts; and was penalised for holding on.
Going into the last five minutes, Rich Ford took a break, bringing Dan back into the game. But the game had rather disintegrated at this point and the fourth try would not come. At the final whistle, Cantabs were completely on top, and Wisbech were pleased to hear the final whistle.
Probably a bonus point missed in hindsight, but a win is a win and consolidates our sixth position in the league, just six points behind leaders Norwich. Cantabs are still not firing on all cylinders, but certainly more than holding their own at this level.
Next game in the New Year (January 5th) is at home to second placed Beccles. A win will make the table very interesting, and it will give us a chance to assess our chances in the Senior Vase semi-final against the same opponents.