Epic battle sees Spartans land the Eastern Counties Championship
By Andrew Thomson
Saffron Walden RFC, 28th April 2019
Squad: Aiden Davies, Ben Harvey, Billy Evans, Callum Sparkes (capt), Cheu Hung Lo, Conrad Harrison, Danny Perry, Giles Starling, Harry Thomson, Harry Trenerry, Isaac Birch, Jack Burrill, Jake Garside, James Ketteridge, Joel Holderness, Matt Elsby, Matt Wernham, Seth Ahier, Oli Reek, Toba Oladapo.
Coaches: Tony Garside, Jon Hood, Jim Starling, Andy Thomson.
Our first Eastern Counties finals. And you couldn’t wish for better company. Changes in fortunes have meant the end of Colchester’s domination of this competition so we’re joined today by Sudbury for the finals at hosts Saffron Walden. All three squads share an outlook - and the potential to win.
It’s going to be decided over three 35-minute games with Wymondham sitting out the first so, while we warm up, Sudbury steal a narrow 7-5 win over the hosts thanks to a late penalty try.
Wymondham Spartans 19 - 5 Sudbury
Captain Callum leaves remarkably little room for doubt in the pre-game huddle. If the Spartans want their name on the title then they are going to have to work for it. No hiding place, no half measures, no second chances.
Wymondham start and our chase is good and we force the line out, but things rapidly get rocky. The ref pings us, Sudbury opt for the scrum and their backs are immediately knocking on the door of our 22. We get a penalty but lose the line out, Sudbury pounce and look to be over but a double movement thwarts them and now it’s us who are the lucky ones.
Joel gets us back into the attack, breaking from a scrum and punching up to their 22. We secure, recycle and Bill at 12 has the power to break the tackle and score with Jake adding the extra two points. Sudbury miscue the restart and we use the centrefield scrum to attack again. Isaac on the wing has the pace to reach the line but is bought down just short and though he reaches out the ref disallows it.
The penalty count - which is going to become something of a feature this afternoon - begins to creep up as first we go off our feet at the ruck and then are caught offside. Sudbury use the opportunity to ship the ball wide to some tasty looking wingers and it takes sharp work to keep them from breaking through.
Both sides threaten and are trying to play expansive rugby - but the defences are quick to respond and the touch line claims a host of victims as players are forced out. Isaac threatens again just before the break but it’s Sudbury who score on the restart. We’re penalised again, gifting them an attacking lineout deep in our 22 and they set a maul that we can’t stop. It’s out wide though and they miss the conversion in the tricky cross-wind.
We trade penalties and field positions and get close before being stripped of the ball in their 22. But we’re building pressure and it pays off at Toba breaks through the middle, feeding Conrad who off-loads in turn to Bill for Jake to dab it down in the corner. We miss the conversion but it puts us 12-5 up with less the ten minutes to go.
And then the coach-crusher for Sudbury - Bill catches the restart and explodes through the contact to set up Jack for a rampage through their midfield. It’s a wrecking ball of a run - there’s no need for shipping the ball wide when crashing through the middle works and the result is another seven points in the bag.
Sudbury are getting tired and overrun a chance, resulting in a forward pass. Bill crosses from the resulting scrum but is held up. We lose the next scrum and don’t have the clinical finishing we’d like, but there’s no lack of commitment as line speed and tackling hem them into their half and choke off any hope of a Suffolk resurgence. It ends 19-5 to Wymondham.
Wymondham 7 - 0 Saffron Walden
Is it better to play two on the trot or have the break? Sudbury suffered from their back-to-back games so we’ve got to keep energy levels up. A 15-minute rest for water and jelly babies - a lot of jelly babies - refuels the Spartans and our hope is that Saffron Walden have rust in their legs rather than hope in their hearts. (Some hope, as it turns out.) They can still win the title by beating us by more than seven points.
We kick off and immediately give away penalties. The hosts go for the posts and though they miss we’re left stuck in our red zone defending doggedly. At first it feels like we’re going to break out at any minute, but when we get possession it’s slow ball with Walden in our faces and we’re repeatedly caught offside, ceding territory and rapidly any hope of a counter.
Walden get a penalty on our 5m line - we hold them out. Then it’s their scrum on the 5m. Then another 5m penalty followed by another scrum. Every time Wymondham’s defenders launch themselves out of the blocks to meet Walden on the gain line and stop them in their tracks. It’s working and we manage to force them back to our 22 but the ref’s patience with our rap sheet is wearing thin and the next offside sees Joel consigned to the bin.
So now we’re 14 against 15, scoreless, and at the wrong end of all those irritating stats about possession, metres made and territory. It doesn’t bother the Spartans for a moment. The game against Hinckley a few weeks ago showed just how dogged these lads can be in defence. Callum has led the defence and been joined by every Spartan, but now he’s off with a shiner of a black eye so his teammates set to, organising, pressurising, covering and tackling. It’s hard, draining, physical rugby but played with cool heads and utter determination.
We make it to the half with the clean sheet intact. Saffron Walden have got to be dispirited not to score after throwing so much at us. But not a bit - we lose the first lineout after the break and though Joel’s now back on we’re back on our try line defending again. Suddenly they’re through, a cheer goes up from the home crowd but it ends in a groan - Toba has pounced and ripped the ball free before it can be grounded.
The 22 dropout finally gets us some space and territory to work with, we chase hard and are rewarded with a midfield scrum. It’s the platform that Jake at 13 has been waiting for - he’s away, weaving and spinning to the tryline to put us a vital score ahead. And he converts which means Saffron Walden will have to score twice to claim the title.
For a heartbeat we get some control of the game. We concede a quick penalty but Toba claims the loose ball at their lineout and Bill kicks deep. Walden’s back three though are up for the challenge and run it back at us at pace. So we’re back defending on our 5m and the penalties again come too thick and fast.
An injury to a Saffron Walden player means we have to switch pitches and the break gives everyone time to recover. A dad who’s a trauma surgeon checks out the Walden player and confirms he’s OK. Such is the game that some of the traumatised spectators could also do with his attention. Even Callum, patrolling the touchline and surveying his team through his one good eye, admits it’s much harder watching than playing.
When it restarts Saffron switch tactics. They’ve battered on our front door for so long without breaking it down so now they try to run around us. But our line speed is good and it’s they who end up conceding metres.
We’ve only had a toehold in this game so far - a fraction of territory and possession. For much of the game the pitch might as well have been only 22m long - or even 5m. Walden have hemmed us in and our shocking penalty count has handed them chance after chance.
But now there’s a shift. We steal possession and Jake clears. They get the lineout but then it’s their turn to concede the penalty. We hand them one straight back but win the resulting lineout and they concede another penalty. They’re out of time now and the game ends, fittingly, with one final break by Walden’s winger who’s clinically brought down by Isaac’s cover tackle.
It means the Spartans are Eastern Counties Champions. It’s by the slimmest of margins and the biggest of shifts. The effort to keep first Sudbury and then Walden out, conceding just one score across the two games, was unbelievable. Technically there’s much to work on, but in terms of spirit, determination. comradeship and cussed Norfolk heart, it was unbeatable!
Our thanks to both our hosts Saffron Walden and to Sudbury - there were three cracking games played in great spirit and it bodes well for the quality of Colts rugby in Eastern Counties next season.
No Man of the Match for this one as these were wins forged by everyone in the squad. And far too few individual names are mentioned in this report but the list would just be too long. Huge congratulations to all the players and Spartan salutes to lead coach Neil (anxiously following events via WhatsApp from the Touch World Cup in Malaysia) and captain Callum for their brilliant leadership.