Forget what I said about last week's match being the performance of the season - that was a fun 70 point win, but Saturday's victory over Saffron Walden 2's was the most significant result of the league campaign this year.
With three of last week's squad taken up to the 1st team and 2 others injured, there were to be a few changes this week. Looking at the players on form for the 3rd team, we called up Tim at Hooker, Chris on the Wing, and Thom & Keith to provide some bench cover. A long time Cantab, it was also the return of Gary 'Guns' Nightingale, who has recently moved back to Cambridge and made this Saturday his first appearance for the 2s in a good number of years plus his debut at scrum-half. A welcome return also for Alex Woolley who flew back from the south of France for his first game since he left the country last summer.
Every player had spent the last week building up to this game - a win against SW would put us in a very strong position to win the league, but we knew we had a huge task at hand. Walden had lost only 2 games this season and had beaten Bury, our closest contenders, twice. All the focus before the game was on how we were to keep calm and patient, stick to our game plan and play the rugby that had served us so well all season. As the time for kick off grew closer, the sun came out over the wide and firm pitch and a crowd assembled.
Walden kicked off and immediately applied the pressure. A deep punt pinned us back to our try line and it was a few minutes before we managed to regain some territory. An infringement at the ruck gifted Walden with an early kick at goal, but much to our relief the kicker sent it wide.
Well this was always going to a physical game. The ground was hard and so was the Walden defence. We tried crashing up through forwards, we tried driving line outs, tried running up through the centres and we tried kicks over the top for wingers to chase, but for the first 30 minutes Walden held firm. We did however win a penalty inside the opposition 22, and Simon stepped up to calmly give us a 3 point lead. There were some great running efforts - Drew was making holes, Pudney was handing off like a demon, Tozer, Nat & Woolley were running hard off Simon and Chris Kelly was making all sorts of yards, but SW always had a man to stop the attack. One of the closest moments was when the ball was moved wide to Swarty on the wing - he put on the burners and made 30 metres before the tackle came in. It was a big hit and the landing was not a good one - sadly Alex had to be carried off with a knee injury.
But we were prepared for this tough encounter. We knew that if we remained patient and focused our time would come, and 5 mins before the half time whistle Cantabs found themselves with an attacking line-out in the opposition 22. As he had been doing all day, Steve won the ball and it was driven up. A couple of phases brought us closer to the line, I was stopped just a foot short but eventually our placid and humble scrum-half darted through the smallest of gaps to ground the ball under the posts. Simon kicked true, and the half-time score was 10-0 to us.
So that was the attack. The next time we would score was the last play of the game, where once again Simon hit the mark for the final 3 points after a penalty at the breakdown.
Set piece wasn't comfortable this week, but we did seem to get away with it. Our own lineout worked to perfection (I won't have a word said against Tim's throwing in - always rated it). We had a couple of nice catch and drives too. Steve was on top form and we did manage to disrupt and steal the opposition line out on occasion, but we also fell foul of a few penalties in this area (early jumps, catching the ball within the 5 metre line, taking too long to form up & closing the gap). Scrum time was unsettled, I was struggling to get through on my prop, but Tim had already identified their weakness in their hooker - so we pressured him and managed to steal a few of their balls. Walden did have the mass to push us back time and time again, but on most occasions Tim managed to get the hook in before this happened - meaning the ball would regularly come flying out of the back of the scrum. Gary did very well to deal with this.
The game was won this week in our impeccable defence. Walden were throwing as much at us as we did at them. They had some very speedy wingers and a good kicker. I thought Alex White had an immaculate game at full back, dealing with all manner of sticky situations from high balls to taking out any man who found himself attacking our line. The wingers too - Chris, Alex and Thom had a lot to do but handled themselves perfectly.
Physicality was at its peak. Breakdowns were a real battle but we had upped our game in this respect (I for one had Warren's lessons from Thursday's training fresh in my mind). Beast had been one of the first to endure the hard conditions, having to take an early rest after a serious of hard tackles to give way to Nat. In the 2nd half after a particularly big contact, Woolley was too dizzy to continue and allowed us to release Keith. Everything we had trained on this season and had spoken about before the game and at half time fell into place. The deciding factor for us was the defensive organisation and the first up hits. Missed tackles were vacant from this game, as every man stepped up and did his job and did it well. I saw Simon make some demonic tackles and Drew has this incredible ability to hold up his man in the tackle and present him to the forwards to maul over.
The entire first 25 minutes of the second half were spent defending our line. Walden just kept coming and we just about kept them at bay. One or two attacks held up over the line, a few more shuffled into touch with centimetres to spare and a great steal from Tim to stop them scoring. We would get the ball back, clear our lines and then have to endure the pressure again. I would say that Walden definitely deserved a score, so to keep them from crossing the line is a monumental effort. No one this week was more competent in defence than Steve Conacher. Everywhere you looked he was there taking a man down, without fail. We were hurting and we were tired, but we never panicked and with Drew bossing the line, we slowly but surely worked our way out of the red zone.
Despite some hard running in the last quarter from Thom, Keith and the front row, we didn't score again. We kept our momentum and spirit up and when that final penalty bisected the posts, there was a lot of very manly hugging in celebration.
A few guys deserve a mention this week:
Skeggs had a stormer. Having hurt his shoulder early in the second half, our number 8 kept having to take a knee while treatment was given, but our subs were all on the pitch replacing previous injuries so Skeggs just battled on through the pain - it didn't affect his stellar performance.
Nat only got asked to play a couple of hours before kick off, he was originally unavailable after spending all week off with D & V. Bless him, he was drained of all energy but kept going until the final whistle and showed some real character.
Keith played the best I have seen him all season, as did Tim and Toby. Chris Kelly won't be back in the 3rd team any time soon either.
Huge thanks too to all the supporters. I saw Mikey, Brad, Darren, Shane and Nikki on the touch line and in a game like this hearing those voices really made a difference to our morale - we appreciate you all making the effort to get down.
A fierce performance by the 2s this week, and we have set ourselves up nicely to earn the league title at home last week. I have had a look through Walden's results over the last couple of years and realised that absolutely no one nils them.
No one but Cantabs.
Man Of The Match - without a shadow of doubt, Steve Conacher. Absolutely fantastic.
Dick Of The Day - Coach Tony put himself in contention for this award by driving off with the match report form (imagine if we didn't get the league points from this game!) but dick(s) of the day this week goes to the whole pack for wasting a great 2nd half attacking opportunity by taking too long to get to the line out.
Next week we face Sawston away - Get down, it's going to be a good one.