The game against West Norfolk had been seen as our chance to play that London 3 "play off" game to see who really were the Champions back in the 2019/20 season that was cut short by Covid. Whilst Cantabs went into the game with an outside chance of promotion, our Norfolk friends were looking at relegation. Easy game you might think, but there are no easy games in this division. Perhaps our players thought they just had to turn up, but the way this game played out that was far from reality. Cantabs were without a few key players, but surely we had enough depth in strength to win against our old foes. In came Jack Lee at hooker, and Jonny Heaver was moved into the front row to replace Jon Perks. It was also a welcome return for Club captain Danny Richards who returned from three months out with a torn hamstring; although he was starting on the right wing.
We kicked off towards the railway in perfect rugby conditions; no wind and a soft pitch. Our initial attack came to nothing with a knock on and the first scrum gave us an indication that we were not going to dominate in the set piece. Wests were already throwing the ball about to good effect and some lovely play from their scrum half set up the first score in the right hand corner; 0 - 5 after five minutes. So it continued with Wests doing all the attacking and Cantabs holding on and defending furiously. The opposition won a penalty on the edge of our 22, and such was their confidence that they opted for a scrum. Our pack went backwards, and conceded a second scrum, this time just ten metres out. The scrum was won by Wests, a dummy accepted and it was try number two. This time the conversion was a formality; 0 - 12 and if we already knew we were going to have to fight to get anything from this game. After 12 minutes nothing had gone right for Cantabs.
Right from the restart Cantabs looked more purposeful, but every time we seemed to be getting into the game, the referee's whistle stopped our progress. After seventeen minutes, Ollie found Jos Crush and he made good ground and created the break, two passes later, and Danny Richards had scored in the corner. Alan Barker's kick went under the bar, but Cantabs were on the score sheet at 5 - 12. Then a lineout steel in our own 22, saw Cantabs moving the ball was some slick passing. This was more like it and suddenly there was Drew
Tilley outpacing the defence, with James McCaskie to his left. Drew did not need him and scored to the left of the posts. Alan scored the extra two and we were back level at 12 - 12. Simple game when you get it right.
Our scrum had settled down, Jos was finding the touchline well and Cantabs were getting back into the game, until Sir decided to penalise Ed Foster for a high tackle, yellow card, and we were on the back foot again. This seemed to encourage Wests, and their runners again looked capable of breaking our line. There were a couple of good bursts from Jack Lee, but he lost the ball in the tackle, and the Norfolk men were able to clear the danger. The West Norfolk centre then broke through our defence yet again, and they were ahead ahead again at 19 - 12.
Cantabs continued to fight hard and when Wests were penalised for coming in at the side of a maul, Jos found the right hand corner with a great kick. We won the lineout and the maul went close. A penalty followed, Jonny Heaver took a tap on 5m, and went close. Back we went for another penalty, same player same tap, and this time Finn Morrison just did enough to score close to the posts. We saw it happen, all our team saw it happen, and Wests saw it happen, as they prepared for the conversion. But the man that matters, Sir, did not see the try and after a discussion with Danny, called time on the half. Terrible decision, and one which was going to prove to be vital at the end of the game.
Ed was back on as the second half kicked off. Wests were seemingly refreshed and raring to go again, because they dominated the early exchanges. Cantabs were defending furiously, but a lovely kick to the corner put us under severe pressure. Their big men were hitting us hard and Sir took exception to challenges, first from Rich Ford at the ruck and then Finn Morrison. Two more yellow cards and it was 13 defending a scrum on 5m. Somehow Cantabs managed to repel that onslaught, but the pressure told and following a second scrum Wests finally pushed us back and scored at the posts; 12 - 26.
Remarkably, Cantabs were still trying to run the ball and some slick passing straight from the restart put James McCaskie away on the left wing and he joyfully scored in the corner to make it 17 - 26. Cantabs were holding on for the completion of the ten minutes and Francois Eve and James McCaskie combined well to stop another Wests break away. Cantabs continued to press but when the Wests inside centre intercepted a wayward pass on the edge of his own 22, and broke clear. It took a combination of Danny and Francois to finally halt him on our own 22, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Cantabs were restored to 15, and then started to press hard.
Charlie Searle came on for Jack Lee, Tom Stace was replaced by the younger Townsend, Luke, as Glen rang the changes. Still all the penalties were going against Cantabs and Sir was halting our progress as much as the Wests defence. But, Cantabs managed to finally break through and again it was Drew Tilley who scored after a move which started in our own half. Alan added the extras and we were right back in the game at 24 - 26 with ten minutes left to play. Our final substitution saw Fergus Wilson move onto the right wing, Danny transferring to outside centre and Drew retired to the bench. Charlie Searle had definitely improved the shape of the scrum and this was now putting Wests under pressure. However, Charlie's throwing was obviously a little rusty as at vital times he was being penalised for crooked throws, and Cantabs were losing out. Twice Jos hit the corner and twice we spurned the chance to finish the game off.
Finally, time ran out and West Norfolk celebrated a rare win. Two bonus points gained by Cantabs but they will not quite be enough I fancy. I was gutted for our players and especially for our coaches. A season that had promised so much effectively now consigned Cantabs to a probable fifth place and the chance of a history-breaking season in London 1 had effectively gone. Time and again this season we have conceded tries early on and have been on the back foot and this was another classic example. But this time, with Sir refusing an obvious try and with the yellow card count 3 - 0 against us, it was just never going to be our day.
Oh well, as the Bard said "to sleep, perchance to dream"....
1 Isaia Barbieri, 2 Jack Lee, 3 Jonny Heaver, 4 Simon New, 5 Ed Foster, 6 Tom Stace, 7 Finn Morrison,
8 Rich Ford , 9 Ollie Townsend, 10 Jos Crush, 11 James McCaskie, 12 Alan Barker, 13 Andrew Tilley,
14 Danny Richards (capt), 15 Francois Eve, 16 Charles Searle, 17 Luke Townsend, 18 Fergus Wilson.
Tries: Drew Tilley 2, Danny Richards, James McCaskie
Conversions: Alan Barker 2