Cantabs were one of the very few Clubs managing to avoid the snow and ice, when Upminster announced that their pitches were clear. We had beaten the Essex Club relatively easily at Sedley Taylor Road but since then Upminster had enjoyed an unbeaten run. Our forwards were virtually unchanged but the backs were bolstered by the return of James McCaughran and Samisoni Kididromo.
The surface was very sticky, but free from snow and ice; the thaw had ensured a perfectly playable pitch. Cantabs won the toss and elected to start against the light wind and up the slope, so it was Upminster kicking off. The first meaningful attack was from Cantabs running the ball out of there own 22, and Ben, and Dean combined well to set Francois away on the left. He was tackled in the opponents half and penalised for holding on and the Upminster fullback was knocked out in the process. He left the field to recover, but resumed his position five minutes later.
Upminster had the first chance to score with a penalty awarded 30m wide out on the left in one of the muddiest sections and needless to say their scrum half hardly got the ball off the ground.
Sami then had one of many and best charge through the middle taking on the entire back row and made the Us 22, but Cantabs were again penalised for not keeping on their feet; not easy in the conditions,
After 10 minutes the first scrum was awarded and it was clear that the packs were well matched. Time and again we were penalised and to us Cantabs supporters everything seemed stacked against us the slope, the wind and at times the officials. Following one of these penalties, and a dubious touch decision doing the way of the home side, Upminster were just ten metres out from our line. The throw was won by their No 4 and the attack failed right under our posts with a fumble. Cantabs managed to just about hold onto their scrum, slithering backwards. The clearance just managed to delay the attack and suddenly the Upminster big No 8 was bursting through our tackles and only a brilliant tackle by Dean, avoided a score when he held up the big man over the line. Cantabs were penalised at the scrum for not pushing straight and their No 8 was not going to be denied a second time, crashing over under the posts. The conversion was a formality; so after 16 minutes it was 7 - 0 to the home side.
Cantabs kept trying to run the ball, but our handling let us down and Upminster were kicking their way deep into our half. Following another run from Sami, this time we gained the penalty 30m out centrally. To my surprise, Rich Ford called up Ali to have a shot against the wind and somehow he slotted the ball with a perfect kick out of the mud. 25 minutes; 7 - 3 and we were keeping in touch.
Irish then jinked through the defence and nearly got his pass away to our supporting Fijian, but the pass was just not held. Yet another penalty to Upminster for holding on the halfway line, saw their scrum half hit a great touch just inside our 22. The throw was taken and Upminster set up a rolling maul with their No 8 in control. We were penalised for pulling it down but Upminster played the advantage and their prop was on hand to dive over under the posts. The referee saw fit to send Perksy off for a ten minute break and the conversion was again a formality. So after 30 minutes, the Essex men were in charge at 14 - 3.
Somehow our scrum held out well for the period up to half time, with Jonnie Heaver moving to prop but we were very much on the back foot, and their big men continued to try and blast their way through our ranks. We held out somehow to half time. The penalty count was very much for the home side, but they could not press home their numerical advantage.
The referee signalled that Jon Perks spell in the sin bin was over as he blew for half time, so Cantabs were back to a full compliment as they kicked off the second half, but were brought back to the centre spot as Dean’s kick went straight into touch. Rich Ford took time out for his ribs to recover and Chris Walliker took up his accustomed place at 2nd row with Skeggsy moving to No 8. Cantabs now had the advantage of wind and slope and were soon pressing hard, and for the first five minutes all the play was in the Upminster 22.
Cantabs pressure finally paid off after 52 minutes when Ben Farmer gathered the ball in his own half wide on the right. He ran at the defence and then put a great kick down the line over the Upminster full-back. He out-sprinted the cover defence to reach the ball two metres from the line, re-gathered it, and dived over for a great solo try. Ali's conversion was spot on from out wide, and Cantabs were back in the game at 14 - 10.
Upminster were now under extreme pressure and holding on, Dan Searle suffered a bad knock from a heavy hit, was penalised for not keeping on his feet and had to take a breather; Rich Ford rejoining the fray and the versatile Skeggsy moving to flanker. The penalty allowed them to move into our half and from the lineout Upminster put in their first attack of the half, won the penalty again on our 22, bang in front and moved clear again at 17 - 10. Fraser was replaced by Denman at blindside, and Skeggs gave way to a recovered Dan Searle.
Cantabs were soon on the ascendancy again, and Upminster were let off the hook in their own 22, when Ali could not hold onto a crash ball. From the scrum, their scrum half put in a long clearing kick which Francois caught and ran back at them down the left wing. His pass inside to Ali was again not gathered , with the try line beckoning, and the home side held onto their scrum with their No 8 and scrum half combining well to work the ball forward.
However, Cantabs could not be denied for long, and on 68 minutes following a solid scrum on the Upminster 22, Dean moved the ball out left to the backs, and it was Irish James on the overlap who finished off the move by scoring in the left hand corner. Ali was having one of those days when everything he kicked went right and despite the angle and the mud, his conversion crept over the bar to level the scores at 17 - 17. Drew took a break and was replaced by Josh, who moved to 10, with Irish James going to outside Centre.
Upminster were now holding on desperately, and wave after wave of Cantabs pressure moved play deep into their 22. Cantabs put in phase after phase, rucking and mauling the ball towards the opponents line. Then we were over, but Denman was denied the score when the ball was adjudged held up. From the resultant scrum, Cantabs were shifted out wider to the right, gained a second put in and Dean combined with Ali to put our fullback clear on the blind-side. Ali ghosted through the defence and just managed to dot the ball down for a try wide on the right. His kick from the touchline was again accurate and so with just five minutes left on the clock, Cantabs were in front for the first time at 24 - 17.
We were holding out well, and had kept the ball in the Upminster half. But a knock on resulted, somebody tried to hold back the Upminster scrum half and we were penalised. Upminster shipped the ball along the backs to their Fijian left wing who ran at us from his own half, he side stepped or out-paced all attempts to tackle him, and went in under the posts for a great try that got the home crowd celebrating. For the third time the conversion was a formality, and the referee immediately blew for time. Final score 24 points each and Cantabs were deflated; a game we could and should have won. Upminster are now fourth in the division, Cantabs fifth, but for the second time this season we lost a winning position in an away game to the last kick of the game.
Man of the match for his battering runs through the Centre was our Fijian, Sami. The whole side played well and just never accepted defeat after a first half battering. The referee said we were the better team, but I am not sure anybody cared at that point.
Next match is the SE & London Senior Vase Semi-final at Beccles. Our third National Cup semi in three years and ever one of them away from home – can we do it this time?