Despite lying second in the League, ‘Ensians knew from past experience that no trip to their neighbours over the Chevin was going to be easy. This proved to be the case as they produced a mixed performance against a Mods side who, although looking dead and buried at times, kept coming back. The Chairman of Eccleshall, their opponents in next Saturday’s RFU National Vase semi-final, travelled up from Staffordshire to have a look at ‘Ensians facilities and to watch them in action in the second half. He will have travelled back with mixed impressions as the visitors produced spells of good flowing rugby interspersed with sloppy handling and missed chances.
Mods’ sloping pitch was soft underfoot with muddy patches and the visitors quickly took advantage of the slope through strong running from centres Luke Cowdell and Ollie Eaves. Their lively back row of Paddy Phipps, Sam Featherstone and Joe Armitage were on hand to support the moves and they were soon applying pressure in the home 22. However, the tables were turned when the hosts gained possession and produced some good running and backing up to take play up to the visitors’ line. They moved the ball wide spelling danger for ‘Ensians, but winger Nick Keinhorst put in a strong tackle and turned the ball over at the same time to regain possession.
The visitors then put together a sweeping back move covering half the length of the field with a last-ditch tackle stopping winger Keinhorst from going over. The hosts managed to relieve the pressure through long kicks from the trusty boot of their fly half. At this stage the visitors lost powerful flanker Joe Armitage with an ankle injury with experienced No 8, Rob Arbuckle coming off the bench.
Scrums had been fairly even up until then, but at the next scrum near the home line, Mods must have wondered what hit them as their pack was demolished by a fierce drive and pushed backwards over the line. A succession of scrums followed and, as Mods defended desperately, they conceded a series of penalties. Eventually, the referee’s patience gave out and he awarded a penalty try to give the visitors a 7 – 0 lead on 34 minutes. The visitors continued to attack down the slope with centre Luke Cowdell coming close, but the home defence held as the whistle came for half time.
After the break with their scrum well on top, the visitors again took the game to the hosts with scrum half Jacob Wragg and fly half Will Cooper spreading the ball wide at every opportunity. On 50 minutes Cooper converted a penalty to extend the lead to 10 – 0. Mods quickly responded with some strong running and support play to put pressure on the visitors’ defence. Their efforts were rewarded with a successful penalty on 57 minutes which reduced the deficit to 10 – 3. ‘Ensians came back immediately with speedy play from their backs and there was good support from flankers Sam Featherstone and Paddy Phipps as centre Luke Cowdell cut through. A try looked certain, but a sound tackle stopped him as he tried to cut inside.
Once more the hosts were under pressure and this time they were trundled back over the line for Rob Arbuckle to touch down. The conversion by Will Cooper moved the score to 17 – 3 on 60 minutes. A long clearance kick downfield from the hosts then took play into the visitors’ 22 where quick passing and a rare lapse in the ‘Ensians’ defence allowed them to score near the corner. The conversion failed, reducing the visitors’ lead to 17 – 8 on 63 minutes
Pressure from the visitors continued, but several threatening moves came to nothing through poor handling with one lobbed pass being intercepted by a Mods. Thankfully for the visitors, a knock-on saved what looked like a certain try. It was now the visitors who again applied more pressure up the slope with good drives from prop Josh Dyson and locks Ali Campbell and Jack Smith. Another pushover try looked to be on the cards, but when the ball popped out, scrum half Jacob Wragg scooped it up and dived over halfway out. The conversion by Cooper stretched the visitors’ lead to 24 – 8 on 70 minutes.
With strong running and slick handling Mods then came back once more and a mix-up in defence allowed them to score a good try in the corner on 78 minutes. The failed conversion took the final score to 24 – 13 to the visitors.
This was an uneven performance from ‘Ensians with some good spells of cohesive rugby alternating with suspect decision-making and indifferent handling. Their spirit and determination meant they came out on top, but they will be looking forward to more consistency next week in what will be one of the most important matches in the Cub’s history.
Kick off for the National Vase home semi-final against Eccleshall is 3 pm with the Club hoping for support from a good crowd to cheer them on their way towards the reward of the final at Twickenham.