Cantabs made the long journey to Maidstone for the Final of the London & SE Divisional Final of the Senior Vase; the Club’s first ever RFU final in history. Maidstone had already won the Division 3SE title and are unbeaten in 19 league games with a points difference exceeding 700, so Cantabs expected a very tough match. With a new pairing at half back of Richard Kemp and Josh Schmidt, following the loss of Dean James and James McCaughran, the task was made all the more difficult. The squad were supported by about 20 faithful Cantabs but the Maidstone crowd was their largest by far of the season, with both touchlines two and three deep with spectators.
1 Isaia Barbieri
2 Charlie Searle
3 Jon Perks
4 Bevan Whyte
5 Warren Cowan
6 Steve Skeggs
7 Dan Searle
8 Rich Ford (capt)
9 Richard Kemp
10 Josh Schmidt
11 Paul Graddage
12 James McCaughran
13 Ben Farmer
14 Francois Eve
15 Ali McCormick
16 Drew Tilley
17 Fraser Kelsall
18 Chris Walliker
19 Jonny Heaver
Cantabs kicked off down the slope, on a pitch pooled with water and extremely muddy. The deep kick was collected by Maidstone and shipped to their outside centre who ran at Cantabs at speed and evaded a couple of despairing attempts to tackle and just kept running. He avoided Ali’s attempt at a tackle, moved the ball out wide and the winger scored in the corner. The worst possible start and only made slightly better when the conversion missed from out wide. Less than two minutes on the clock and Cantabs were 5 points down. The next restart gave the Kent team another chance to attack, and it was their captain that burst through our ranks, was tackled but not held and to everyone’s surprise, he resumed his run, unopposed and dived over the line close to the posts. The extra points were a formality and with five minutes gone the score was 12 - 0.
Cantabs looked shell shocked; two tries behind and we had hardly touched the ball. Our third starting kick caused Maidstone to fumble and from the resultant lineout Maidstone knocked on. The first couple of scrums gave Maidstone a flavour of what was in store for them from the Cantabs pack, and when their prop stood up, we got our first chance of points with a penalty wide on the left 25m out. Ali’s kick hooked past the post and Maidstone were straight back at us. Their backs looked sharp and some good place kicking bought them back in our half. The lineout was lost and before Cantabs could gather themselves the Maidstone fullback had cruised through our defence for a third try. The kick was successful, and with less than a quarter of the match over it was 19 - 0. Cantabs through Sami and Perksy tried to steam-roller their way through the Maidstone lines, but either our handling was not up to the greasy conditions or the ball was ripped away from us, setting up more Maidstone possession for their backs. The home side’s back row were always in our faces.
Again we won a lineout inside their 22, but a combination of mud and poor handling gave possession away yet again. Their flyhalf cleared his lines beautifully kicking from his own 22 and making our 10m line. Poor lineout failed again and Josh tried to clear his 22 when Maidstone lost possession, but his kick was charged down, putting Dan and Skegsy under pressure and but for a knock- on Maidstone would have been clear again. The relief was short-lived, as Maidstone won the ball back even though we won the scrum, and their captain was unstoppable as he forced his way through our defence and over the line for a fourth try, easily converted, to make it 26 - 0.
Our restart was gain fumbled by Maidstone and our scrum was just too much for the home side. Their supporters said they had never seen their scrum going backwards all season, and naturally when they offended inside their 22 we opted for yet another scrum. Rich picked up at No 8 and slipped in the mud, regained his feet but was stripped of the ball by his opposite number. In no time at all Maidstone were back in our half and looked to be going clear again but for a knock-on. Josh and Sami combined well to put Ali away on the left, but strangely he elected to kick and play was brought back to halfway as the ball went out on the full. Cantabs were now at least trying to put some moves together, but by now the players were absolutely plastered in mud and handling was difficult.
Cantabs lost control of the ball once again and the Maidstone fullback scythed through our defence yet again to go in under the posts for try number five; again easily converted to make the score 33 - 0 on 35 minutes. Cantabs kept possession from the restart after the slippery ball was fumbled by Maidstone. However our lineout was just not working and possession was lost to the Maidstone flyhalf, who hit touch on our 22 from his own 10m line. Again our lineout throw went to a Kent hand, and a desperate Perksy was forced to bundle the ball out into touch 10m from our line. The Maidstone catcher went up unopposed to catch the ball, the maul started to roll forward and our forwards were unable to stop its progress. Easy try from the Maidstone pack to the delight of their crowd and this time the kick failed but with less than five minutes to go in the first half it was now 38 - 0.
From the restart we pressed into their 22, but poor handling let us down again and their fly half cleared to halfway. We lost the lineout and the Maidstone backs shifted the ball across to the right. Suddenly there was Francois plucking the ball from a wayward pass, and he sprinted from halfway, and just made the line next to the posts despite two Maidstone defenders tackling him. Ali’s kick hit the posts and bounced over the bar to give us something to cheer at last. That was about that as the whistle followed shortly after. Half time score was 38 - 7. Cantabs on the receiving end of a rugby lesson.
Drew Tilley came on at the break for a heavily bandaged Sami; probably to save him from more ligament damage. Skeggsy and Dan gave way to Chris Walliker and Fraser Kelsall with Bevan moving to blindside flanker, it meant the resumption of Chris’ 2nd row partnership with Warren. This certainly added even more presence to our scrum and Maidstone soon found that the case. We generally won all our scrums well but time and again Josh was under such severe pressure from their back row that his kicks or passes were hurried and inaccurate and our scrum advantage could not be exploited. Cantabs were having to defend desperately in their own 22, but withstood the pressure and managed to work their way out of danger. At that point with the Maidstone front row regularly popping up out of the scrum and gesticulating to the referee, he suddenly started to penalise Isaia for not driving straight.
Cantabs were still making a fist of it now and managed to camp in the Maidstone 22 for an extended period. However, Fraser took a bad knock on the same leg that was damaged the previous week at Canvey Island and he had to be helped off the pitch, bringing Dan Searle back into the fray, at least from his size it must have been Dan. By now both teams were virtually unrecognisable, certainly no numbers were discernable. Cantabs lineout worked for once and a catch and drive by Bevan moved the ball 25m over the halfway line. Another adjudged transgression from Isaia in the front row, brought on Jonny Heaver as his replacement. Jonny was soon in action as a series of scrums on our five metre line put our scrum under pressure. Josh tried to clear but his desperate kick was swallowed up Maidstone, and we were caught off-side. They kicked for touch and from the five metre lineout, caught the ball and set up one of their forwards beautifully for their first try of the second half, with 60 minutes gone. The conversion made the score 45 - 7 and signalled Rich Ford to take a break; Isaia resuming his place in the front row.
Maidstone went clear again shortly afterwards, but knocked on in the mud. However the scoreboard was soon moving again, when we were penalised for not driving straight in the scrum. Their flyhalf set up good position for the lineout and their right winger this time finished the move by making the line in the corner. The score went onto 50 - 7.
Five minutes to go and some poor handling by our backs was punished with what proved to be Maidstone’s final try, easily converted to make the final score 57 - 7.
We did have one final attack, when Drew hacked through and put their full-back under pressure, but it was all over soon after. The final whistle came and for Cantabs the misery was over, Maidstone defended the trophy they won last year at Newmarket. Our first ever final was not one to remember and it will be a very fine team that prevents Maidstone from going on to take the National title.
Cantabs can take a great deal of credit for trying to stay with the home side throughout the match. We missed Dean and Irish, but even they would not have prevented Maidstone from winning. Problem now for our coaching team will be to lift our battered team for the resumption of the league programme.
Cantabs will be without Ben Farmer for the rest of the season. Ben and Kylie return to NZ on Monday. They will be missed by their friends at Cantabs, we wish you both well.