Cantabs 1st XV made the trip down the A14 to unbeaten Ipswich. With driving rain and strong wind forecast, this was far removed from the blissful summer rugby of just a couple of weeks ago.
The team included debut 1st XV league appearances for Ed Foster, Fergus Austin, James Moore, Lew Jones, and Jack Elliot. Other changes from the previous week's agonising last minute loss to Saffron Walden included Jos Crush returning at fly half, Dean James moving to scrum half, Jonny Heaver returning to the second row after bicep tear in preseason, and Simon New and Danny Richards joining Fergus Austin to complete a fully changed back row. The game also held significance for Alan Barker, who joined Cantabs from Ipswich after landing a job in Cambridge and was returning to his old club having made a fixture of himself in the 1st XV backline.
Cantabs kicked off with the wind and rain at their backs in conditions that would only worsen as the game went on. Ipswich started well, with an efficient exit and kicking to compete enabling them to win a couple of early penalties, the latter of which was successfully kicked at goal for an early 3-0 lead.
Cantabs responded well from the kick off, immediately winning a penalty which was then kicked to the corner. However, with the driving rain and gale blowing, lineout throws for both sides remained a lottery for most of the game, and the ball was lost. A short exchange of kicking ended as a Cantabs kick rolled dead with the wind, but the Cantabs pack turned on the power to win a penalty from the first scrum of the game.
Cantabs won the lineout and, under pressure from a fast blitz defence, Dean carried strongly from 9 before losing the ball forwards. After another strong exit from Ipswich, winning another penalty from a ruck after a kick chase, the resulting lineout lottery was won by Cantabs. An excellent snap clearance from Jos under pressure resulted in the Ipswich wing fumbling the ball into touch.
A better platform from the resulting lineout saw a powerful carry from Fergus in the midfield before some ambition to move the ball wide. However, the ball was knocked on in contact and after a short advantage that came to nothing, another scrum was set. More pressure from Cantabs at the scrum and then in the backline resulted in a turnover, from which Jos sent a searching kick down towards the Ipswich corner, which was touched by their fullback before going dead.
Cantabs piled the pressure on a the attacking 5m scrum, including winning a penalty, then a second reset but then conceding a reversed penalty to Ipswich. The Cantabs pack seemed to maintain forward momentum throughout the game, but scrum penalties continued to be awarded both ways for different infringements. From the resulting lineout, another searching kick from Ipswich was fumbled in the Cantabs backfield. Despite the scramble defence, the ball was regathered by Ipswich with their scrum half making the most of the space from the broken play to slide over next to the posts, with the conversion making it 10-0.
The game continued in this manner, with both sides opting to kick more often than not, and attacking opportunities only really emerging from mistakes. A strong surge from Alan saw Cantabs gain an excellent front-foot platform near the edge of the Ipswich 22. A couple of phases later, Ipswich infringed, and Finn nailed the resulting penalty putting Cantabs on the board; 10-3.
Cantabs continued this momentum, with a strong finish to the half. Some excellent defence from Lew against Ipswich's powerful winger resulted in a scrum to Cantabs. Jos found grass with a long searching kick down into Ipswich's 22, with Noah, James, Alan and Finn powering through the resulting ruck to win a penalty. However, another lottery lineout later and Ipswich survived this pressure, taking the game to half time.
Cantabs then left the brief reprise of the changing rooms to play into a strengthening gale. Despite some industrious exit plays early on, Ipswich quickly pinned Cantabs back with a 50-22, giving them an attacking lineout just 7 meters out from the Cantabs line. Some determined defence from Cantabs saw them repel the lineout, and phases following a scrum, winning a goal line dropout and chance to clear again. However, even with a great strike from Finn that might sail down to half way on a good day, the kick dropped at around the Cantabs 22. With Cantabs' front line defence holding firm, Ipswich tried a cross kick which was fumbled and was gathered by the Ipswich fullback who crossed for their second try. 15-3, and the conditions more challenging by the minute.
Jonny Heaver made way for Laurence, and Drew came on for Lew, slotting into the centres with James shifting over to the wing. Some brief attempts from Ipswich to play more expansively despite the conditions ended predictably with another scrum.
From this point onwards, both teams almost exclusively resorted to kicking as their attacking option. With the gale at their backs, Ipswich particularly benefitted from this, using a mixture short chips, cross kicks and longer attacking kicks to press home their advantage. Attempt after attempt were dealt with by Cantabs, with Danny, Drew, Finn, Noah and James each involved, as well as Lew, returning to replace Alan who was struggling with a dead leg. Cantabs' front line and set piece defence helped to absorb nearly 20 minutes of pressure; Ed, Simon and the wind continued to make a mess of the lineouts, Jack, replacing Ed for his first cap for the 1st XV at tight head, helped keep the Cantabs scrum steady throughout and the front line defence held well. However, with the gale preventing any meaningful clearance, the pressure eventually paid off. Another speculative chip was regathered by the Ipswich chasers, who passed back inside to their supporting fly half who slid in to the left of the posts; 22-3 after the conversion.
Despite the game being lost at this point, Cantabs finished strongly. Dean exerted some typical dominance at rucks, and despite being harshly penalised, had this backed up by Isaia, Bailey and Simon at the next lineout. As a result, Cantabs won the ball back and finally had a strong attacking platform in the Ipswich half. Winning a penalty, the Cantabs pack drove the resulting lineout to within striking distance of the Ipswich line, but were eventually judged to have done so illegally. A couple more set pieces and speculative kicks later, and the ball was hacked into touch for a scrappy end to a scrappy game.
Despite the disappointing result and third loss of the season, there were many positives to be taken from the game. The game came down to who could use the conditions better, and Ipswich showed this with relentless pressure in the second half. However, Cantabs were in the game throughout and showed great commitment despite the horrendous conditions. With another five 1st XV debuts this week, the many other newer faces in the ranks, plus the long list of players either unavailable as a one-off or with short term injuries, the squad depth is as strong as it has been for many years. Even better, the 2nd XV came from behind to beat a Bury 3rd XV side that we have not bested in a long time, so credit to everyone involved for the effort and commitment to the cause.