Last game of 2016 saw Cantabs up against Epping Upper Clapton who had narrowly beaten us in both the league and the Cup this season, so a lot riding on this one. It was third (Cantabs) versus 5th (EUC) with Cantabs on an unbeaten run stretching back to October. Good to see the human rocket, Finn Morrison back at openside. Jonny Regan was in for David Bloxsum and Pete Collins for Jamie Williams at No 8. The home supporters had really enjoyed their Christmas lunch, courtesy of Gay Wisbey and family, so we were in great spirits as the game kicked off.
EUC kicked off towards the railway, on a windless day with a yielding pitch and Cantabs' first attack came to nothing. EUC were the first to threaten with the assistance of a couple of early penalties and moved into our 22. We knocked on and faced their scrum after six minutes. Initial indications were that the EUC pack were going to be no pushover.
Cantabs finally got into the game; first Jonny Heaver made good ground on the left and found Finn on his shoulder to take the ball into the EUC 22. The attack came to nothing with yet another penalty against us.
It took nearly quarter of an hour to win our first penalty and James Hayward found touch back in the opposition 22. Again we lost momentum and the chance went. Then Francois was put away on the right wing, only to get pulled back for a forward pass. It was the final pass that was letting us down, in the face of some fierce defence from the Essex men.
After a quarter of the game neither side had looked like scoring with far too many passes going astray. Finally Cantabs got well into the EUC 22 and Perksy and Shed battered away. Surely the pressure would tell. EUC knocked on and we went for the scrum ten metres out from the posts. At the second time of asking, the scrum collapsed and we got the decision. James Hayward made no mistake;
3 - 0 to Cantabs.
Now our scrum was starting to wear down the EUC front row. At the fourth time of asking Sir had seen enough; James kicked to the left hand corner. We won the lineout moved the ball to the backs and James Hayward ran the ball in for the score, only to be pulled back for a forward pass. However, now Cantabs were calling the tune, Richard Knight was bringing his backs into play more and more. Another penalty; we kicked to the corner, Pete Collins won the lineout, and the maul formed with Tom Bailey directing proceedings at the back. There was no stopping the pack, and Tom duly dived through the melee to score. James made the conversion look easy from wide out on the right; 10 - 0.
James Hayward tried one of his dinks over the top of the defence, and caught his own kick, but the EUC defence was on the ball. We regrouped and then Finn's speed and aggression gained 15 metres into the right hand side of the 22. The pack recycled the ball, Richard to James, who saw the gap, and he was in under the posts; 17 - 0 and that was that for the first half.
EUC started more brightly and with the help of a couple of penalties got up to our 22. The second of these was tapped by their flyhalf and shifted left. Cantabs were caught sleeping and EUC had scored in the left hand corner. The kick was short, but it was a wake up call for Cantabs at 17 - 5.
From that point I can scarcely recall another EUC attack that made our half and the game became a series of Cantabs assaults on their defence, which invariably terminated in a missed pass or a knock-on. By now the EUC front row were looking very ragged and our forwards were winning any loose ball. The pressure finally told when Perksy demanded scrum after scrum from a series of penalties deep inside the EUC 22. At the fifth time of asking, the ball was shipped wide to the right and Hayward just made the corner, taking the new corner flag out in the process. He hobbled back from his try, so Nick Denham took over the kicking and hit a beautiful conversion from the touchline; 24 - 5.
Deano and Isaia took a break and James Balfe and Charlie Searle came into the pack. Euan took over from Francois. Jonny Regan got away on the left wing, but was forced into touch in the corner. Now EUC seemed to have injured players all over the pitch, and struggled to find enough men for the next scrum. James Hayward kicked the next penalty, and our resulting maul gained nearly 20 metres before Tom crossed the line. He was adjudged held up this time. The strain had told, and EUC had to resort to uncontested scrums. Time and time again, we threatened to score and all EUC could do was kick long hoping for the mistake. Nick and James were on top of this strategy and we ran the ball back every time. Now tempers were frayed and a few punches were thrown, Paul Pudney and Charlie were both caught but Sir was unsighted. Perksy made big in-roads, but with the line in sight lost control of the ball. However all the pressure was one way and the try had to come.
Jonny took over from Perksy in the front row, Dean James was restored to the game. Finally the try came and Charlie Searle it was who made the initial break on the right, then joined the line again for a further ten metres before shifting the ball to the backs. Euan's long pass to the left was gathered by Tom Bailey. He broke through one tackle, sold the dummy to pass out wide, before crashing over the line for his second and Cantabs fourth try. James converted and it was all over at 31 - 5. Another bonus point in the bag.
Cantabs maul was now unstoppable and the next one made 30 metres, with EUC in total disarray. The ball was shipped over to the left wing and Regan was again tackled into touch at the corner. The very next attack saw us win a penalty on the right. Deano took the ball on and with three options to pass and the line beckoning, he naturally went for the line, scoring at the posts. Remarkably, James missed this one (probably trying to save the ball from a railway death), but the game was over at 36 - 5.
So, Cantabs go into 2017 on the back of an unbeaten run of nine league games. It is going to take a good side to stop this juggernaut. A lot of the credit must go to Glen Remnant, his non-stop style of attacking rugby is certainly paying dividends, and with an awesome front five, our scrums are simply wearing the opposition down. Time and time again, James Hayward is pointed out by opposition supporters as one of the best they encounter at this level and so I vote for him as player of 2016. Finn Morrison is running him close, but the whole squad seems to have taken to the new coaching style very well.
Next game is away to 2nd in the table South Woodham Ferrers, who have two games in hand on us - a must win match if we are to gain promotion.