Cantabs away yet again in the RFU Senior Vase, our third successive regional semi-final in three years and this time it was league rivals Beccles who were the opposition. The team was virtually unchanged from the previous week with Paul Graddage starting this time and a return for Warren Cowan. Samisoni Kididromo had not recovered sufficiently from knee ligament damage, but a pretty strong squad for this important match. Great to see Bevan Whyte back from NZ on the bench, joined there by Ben Farmer, Fraser Kelsall and Mike Denman.
Cantabs kicked off in near freezing conditions with a biting wind and a very soft, but perfectly playable pitch. Cantabs were first to show attacking flair when scrum half Dean opted to pick up and dart forward from the first ruck, linking with Drew, but the ball was knocked forward in the tackle and Beccles got the put-in just inside their 22. Great pressure from the Cantabs scrum resulted in the first win against the head, a ruck formed at the back of the scrum and a Beccles forward was penalised for not staying on his feet. Ali's kick centrally from the 22 was true; so after just four minutes we were up at 0 - 3.
Beccles made ground shortly after the restart with a boot forward that required Dean to make a try-saving tackle deep in our half. It was Dan Searle that thwarted the next attack from the Suffolk men, but Beccles were now in deep our 22 and looking strong. Cantabs were caught off side with Beccles just ten metres from our line. Their scrum half elected to tap and run but was swallowed up by the Cantabs defenders feet from the line. The home crowd were not amused, with a certain three points rejected.
Beccles continued to press and Cantabs could not move out of their own half. The pressure finally told when we were penalised for handling in the ruck on the edge of our 22. This time Beccles made the right decision, up stepped their No 20 and the scores were level at 3 - 3.
Cantabs had the next chance to score, when Rich Ford gave Ali the chance ay a penalty kick from the Beccles 10m line. The attempt was well short; hindsight showed a kick for touch would have been a better option perhaps. Beccles cleared the danger and moved back into our half and gained a penalty of their own wide on the right and 30m out against the breeze. Their kicker made no mistake and the home side took the lead at 6 - 3, a quarter of the match gone.
The home side deserved their lead and our forwards had to pull out all the stops in the tackle to keep them at bay. Steve Skeggs took a knock and gave way to Bevan Whyte at blindside. Our tackling was very committed, our lineouts secure and our scrum working well as usual, but three times hacks through from Beccles put us back on the defensive.
From such a kick through, Beccles continued to press and gained a scrum inside our 22. They held onto the scrum somehow and it took a great saving tackle from Francois to stop their strong No 8 from making ground. The next scrum we won, but Dean was picked up and driven into the ground by the Beccles No 8, way after the ball had gone. The referee had followed play and missed the assault and after extensive treatment to his shoulder, Dean left the field. Josh moved to scrum half and Irish James took over at flyhalf, bringing Ben Farmer in at Centre.
30m gone and Beccles were awarded yet another kick at goal from the 22 after another infringement at the ruck. Their No 20 was on fire, and slotted the ball to make it 9 - 3. However this seemed to spur Cantabs on. From a scrum wide right on the Beccles 10m line, the ball was shipped along the backs to Paul Graddage who raced through like an arrow from 30m, out pacing the cover defence to dive over in the left hand corner. Ali could not make the extra from way out on the touchline, but we were back in the game at 9 - 8.
A typical drive from Warren, out of his own half, saw him hand off two men including their hooker, whose shoulder appeared to be dislocated. But it apparently popped back in and to his credit he rejoined the awaiting scrum. Our pack were awesome in the scrum at this stage and Dan Searle picked up after Beccles could not hold onto their own ball, releasing his brother Charlie on the blindside. Charlie darted down the wing, but was tackled into touch at the corner flag. Cantabs were now staring to exert great pressure and even the Beccles lineout was being denied clean ball. Richard elected to go from the back of the next scrum and ended up tackled close to the line. Our next man to go close was Perksy on the crash ball, but Beccles held their line. The next scrum on five metres went to Beccles, who had to touch down in goal so we got the put in and were denied yet again by good defence. That was it for the first half; a very competitive game with Cantabs getting back into it after the try.
For the second half, Dan Searle who had tackled his heart out was replaced by Fraser Kelsall and Dean came back on, replacing Josh. At the first scrum it was good to see Dean pat their No 8 on the head, to say no hard feelings, and from that point we rather dominated the half. Cantabs seemed to be camped in the Beccles 22, and our first chance went to Jonnie Heaver on the crash with a great reverse pass from Dean only for Jonnie to be held up over the line. Our scrum released Francois wide on the right but he was tackled into touch. Beccles could only punt the ball out from behind their line and Cantabs came straight back at them with another great blindside move on the right. Cantabs backs were not quite on their game however, with too much ball being lost with wayward passing and poor alignment as our flat lines were swallowed up by the Beccles backs.
Beccles changed their scrum half, but still could not break free into our half. The pressure at the scrum finally told when Beccles were penalised wide on the left just outside their 22. Ali's attempt rapped the far post and rebounded into play, where a Beccles forward knocked on, giving us a scrum 10m out from goal. Richard took the ball forward from the back of the scrum and the ruck fed Perksy on the crash. He knocked on so Beccles got the put-in on 5m and survived the pressure to boot the ball forward into our half. Drew was penalised for holding on after the tackle and from the 10m line their kicker made the kick. 18 minutes into the second half and apart from the restart it was the first time Beccles crossed the halfway line, but the score was now
12 - 8.
The game got somewhat heated with the referee trying to restore calm by taking the captains to one side. Francois then had a couple of great runs down the right, managing to hold onto the ball in the tackle on the second of these, but finally shepherded into touch inside the Beccles 22. Beccles kicked for safety from behind the posts, the ball going straight to Paul on the left wing, but in his eagerness to start off for the line he spilled the high ball. From the resultant scrum, Cantabs fierce pack spoilt the Beccles ball yet again and this time their blindside flanker was penalised for not rolling away at the tackle, and yellow carded. We elected to take the scrum 10m from the line, quite naturally, but the Suffolk men bravely held out. Our next move resulted in yet another penalty 30m out on the left, and when the Cantabs faithful expected a kick into the corner, we went for goal. Ali, missed and the game moved on. Beccles defending as their lives depended on it and Cantabs camped in their 22. We were penalised for crossing, as Drew made the line; play going back to the five metre line for a Beccles scrum. The pressure finally told on the weakened Beccles scrum, we took the ball against the head, and aet up our big forwards, Perksy, then Charlie to batter the defence on the line, and finally out to Bevan Whyte who dived over in the right hand corner. Ten minutes from time and the score finally in our favour at 12 – 13.
Ali could not make the conversion, but the pressure had finally told.
Beccles were not to be denied however, and a penalty awarded for holding on saw their No 20 teeing up five metres inside our half, We held our collective breathe as the kick dropped short. Then Francois showed his strength yet again on the right wing darting forward to claim a lost ball on halfway, then in the very next play sprinting through the defence to cut back inside through the smallest of gaps between two Beccles forwards and holding onto the ball like a demon as the pack mauled the ball forward towards the Beccles 22. Cantabs were now well on top but another poor pass to Paul on the left, saw Beccles racing clear into our half, a tap tackle from Fraser denying them at the death. Ali gave way to Josh for the last six minutes, and all Cantabs had to do was keep in the Beccles half. A great clearing kick from Ben Farmer found touch in the Beccles 22. The pressure from Bevan in the line caused them to throw in crookedly, and the Cantabs scrum did its job.
Final minute and we won another scrum on the Beccles 10m line and their back row was up on our backs very quickly to deny us good ball, Cantabs were penalised for holding on in the tackle. Up stepped No 20 to try from three metres inside our half. We held our breathe again, the kick dropped under the cross bar, Dean booted the ball out of play and the referee blew for time.
Finally, at the third attempt, a win away from home in a cup semi-final. So Cantabs face unbeaten Maidstone in the London Final of the Senior Vase at Maidstone on 16th March.
A great game with the outcome a win for Cantabs; to a man, the lads deserve this chance after a sterling performance. The Beccles kicker kept them in the game but territorially and for enterprise, Cantabs deserved this win. Bevan made a big difference in the lineout and in the loose, and our pack continued to dominate as they have done all season. Irish James battled to get our backs moving but my man of the match was Francois for his faultless performance on the wing.
Congratulations to Steve and Mick for persevering with the team over the last two seasons, and finally getting the final they deserve. Well done to Richard and Dan for their hard work and finally thanks to Julie Ford for hanging onto her bump for just one more day. Good luck to them both for the week ahead.