It was back to league action for Cantabs this week and the visitors were high-flying South Woodham Ferrers. In the corresponding fixture last September, SWF had inflicted Cantabs worst defeat, and with this game perhaps sealing the championship for the Essex side, they had brought along a large following. Cantabs were still without normal half backs Dean and McCaughran, and with Isaiah Barbieri, Rich Ford, Bevan Whyte, Fraser Kelsall, Steve Skeggs and Samisoni Kiddidromo all unavailable for this game; it was with some trepidation that we looked forward to the kick-off.
Cantabs kicked off into a stiff breeze on a near perfect pitch. It was SWF who made the early running, pushing Cantabs back into their 22, and it took some frantic cover defence to prevent the confident Essex side from taking an early lead. The first scrum went to SWF and they kept possession under a lot of pressure. The visitors then retained possession through phase after phase until Cantabs were penalised for not staying on their feet at the ruck. The penalty was central just inside our 22 and the opposing fullback made no mistake, narrowly missing an outbound train; 0 - 3 after just 10 minutes and it looked to be hard going for Cantabs.
Cantabs started to show some attacking flair after the restart with a marauding Warren Cowan prominent after a good catch from our No 8 at the lineout. But in our eagerness to keep the move going, we were again penalised for not keeping our feet at the breakdown, this time in the opponents 22. The next scrum seemed to lift Cantabs as SWF struggled to contain our drive, only just getting the ball away. Ali was next to threaten with a great run from our fullback, only narrowly failing to get Paul away on the right wing. The SWF fullback was kicking well however and using the wind well, he kept pinning us back into our own half. Francois showed that he was in good sprinting form with a couple of runs down the left wing. The second of these ended in a kick over the defence but he was easily beaten to the dead-ball area by a defender, and SWF dropped out from their 22. Cantabs were now pressing hard and getting their backs into some sort of form. A good move along the line moved us to the SWF 22, where they killed the ball and Ali popped the ball over to level the score after 18 minutes.
Cantabs were now well into tackling mode, Time and again SWF were denied progress by some fierce tackles and Jon Perks was starting to get prominent with his drives from the ruck. One such run took him clearly 30m to within five metres of the try line, and such was his speed that our support could not arrive in time and we were penalised yet again for going over at the ruck. However, for SWF the writing was now on the wall. Cantabs had survived their early onslaught and were putting together more attacking moves than the Essex men.
After 30 minutes the pressure told when we won a penalty 35 m out and although the Cantabs faithful urged a kick into the corner, Ali was handed the ball and the tee. The result was a perfect strike to make the score 6 - 3, and we were in the lead at last. Cantabs were pushed back into their 22 from the restart, and SWF turned down a shot at goal when 15m out and elected for the lineout. They won their lineout but some determined tackling forced the error and Josh kicked clear to our 22. Cantabs were still tackling like demons and SWF had to look to their laurels to prevent a rampaging Francois from getting through on the left wing, with another good run, Richard Kemp was the next to threaten the away side, taking a heavy knock in his attempt to breach their defence. SWF were then penalised for infringing at the ruck and Ali had another chance from 30m. His kick was successful and we had a little breathing space at 9 - 3.
Perks then went on the rampage yet again with another weaving, bullocking drive; they just could not put him down. Cantabs confidence was growing with every move and just on cue, Paul Graddage was put away on the right, dummied to step inside the defender, then sped by on the outside, avoided a last ditch tackle to dive over in the corner. 14 - 3 with two minutes to go; Ali’s kick just fading away past the near post.
So the first half ended with Cantabs spirits sky high compared to pre-match, the lineouts and scrums reaping good possession and now our backs threatening as well. SWF were a little shell-shocked with the ferocity of our rucking, scrummaging and tackling and Cantabs were more than a little hopeful of extending their unbeaten home run.
No personnel changes at half time and for once no bad injuries. Following some early pressure from Cantabs deep in the SWF 22, the Essex men withstood the onslaught well and cleared their lines with some accurate place kicking. The SWF No 8 took a bad knock in the small of his back and left the field after extensive treatment. But it was the Essex men who threatened next when Cantabs were guilty of poor passing out of defence on their own 22, and a knock-on gave the scrum, centrally on our 22. Cantabs scrum forced the error and we broke clear through Ali, who left his pass to the death and just failed to put Francois away on the left. Cantabs stole the lineout and worked the ball forward with some lovely support play by Chris Walliker, Charlie Searle and then the galloping Perksy. Finally we released Paul on the right but he was just tackled into touch. SWF won the lineout but some aggressive tackling tied the 10m out. They won the scrum but Cantabs front five were not in the mood to make it easy and forced their pack into breaking too early. Ali took the kick and the score went to 17 - 3. Twenty minutes of the half gone and SWF had never yet threatened our line.
Cantabs were then penalised on halfway and a great kick from their full-back found touch 10m into our 22. They won the lineout, Ali was penalised for killing the ball, and sin-binned. Cantabs moved Dan Searle into the backs and continued to contest the scrums with seven men. Although we never took a scrum against the head in this period, the seven men easily stood firm on their own ball, such was our dominance in this area.
We saw out the ten minutes with some determined defence, Dan Searle, Luke and Barry quick to get up on the SWF attackers, and our big men hammering away at their defence every time we got possession, keeping the ball tight and allowing the Essex side no chance of a run at us. Josh was now kicking with the wind and following up well with our wingers to deny their dangerous full-back the chance to run the ball back. Ali back on and immediately we moved into their half, firstly Francois combined with Warren, then another great backs move put Finlay clear with a lovely run on the left. He got his pass away to Dan but in his eagerness to dive over the ball preceded him.
SWF took the scrum on 5m and were pushed ragged by our pack, conceding the penalty. Dan elected for the scrum. We held it in, moved the ball forward and it was an easy task for our No 8 to dive over. Ali missed the kick, but the damage was done at 22 - 3 and only five minutes to go. Francois took a break and left to a hearty round of applause from his tem and the Cantabs faithful, bringing young Harri into the fray
Charlie Searle showed his strength in the ruck next, taking the ball off three defenders to steal possession. We moved the ball out to Paul who was again tackled into touch. Drew suffered another knock and left the field, Francois resuming where he left off.
Finlay and Ali were now showing off their running skills as Cantabs had all but killed off the opposition, but the score was unchanged as the referee blew for time.
Yet another great performance from our team, when some of us had written them off prior to the game. Every man in the team tackled his heart out and any one of them could have taken man of the match. For me Perksy and Francois had outstanding games with their attacking runs, but it was our defence that won us this one. We have now conceded just 50 points at home in our nine matches and overall we have the best points difference in the division.
This win takes us to fourth with SWF retaining second position to Norwich (who visit Sedley Taylor Road on the 13th April). One of those two clubs will take the title, but both of them will know they have been in a game.
For me this was our best game of the season, with a so-called weakened side. Great to see that we have got strength in depth. Well done lads!