Northern 5 Alnwick 26
On the back of a hard-fought cup win against Tynedale Raiders the previous week, Alnwick were hoping that the first league game of the season would see them correct the run of narrow defeats by Northern in their recent meetings and take the Andy Bell Trophy home with them, writes Gwyn Tomos.
On a bright day with a slight breeze and an immaculate firm pitch, the scene was set for what turned out to be a highly competitive and entertaining match.
An eventful first five minutes gave hints of the pattern which was to follow. Northern conceded a penalty from their own kick-off and Alnwick put them back into their own half.
An inaccurate throw gave Northern the scrum and at this point things looked ominous for Alnwick as a powerful Northern drive shunted them backwards over 20 metres where their efforts were rewarded with a penalty on the Alnwick 10-metre line to the right of the posts.
The kick drifted wide, but Northern forwards pressed hard before releasing their backs. The Alnwick backs pressured their opposite numbers and Andrew Shell was alert to intercept the final floating pass to the wing.
Needing no invitation to capitalise on this generosity, he shot away from the cove, before deceiving the full-back with a left feint and then scorching past him down the right-hand touchline to canter round and touch down between the posts, giving Bird a simple conversion (0-7).
The next few phases saw forward pressure from Northern, but their backs were unable to take advantage of their possession and territory as they were harried into handling errors by the good line speed of the Alnwick backs, and fiercely uncompromising tackling from the backs and forwards alike.
Although at this stage Northern seemed to have a slight edge in the loose, possession was wasted, unlike Alnwick who were always looking to attack as illustrated by a deft chip into the left-hand corner by Warcup which just eluded winger Todd and the defence before rolling dead. The Alnwick pack had by now recovered from the debacle of the first set scrum and were comfortably holding their own and even disrupting Northern ball.
Continued determined tackling by Alnwick and handling errors by Northern obliged them to resort to kick more often, which in turn allowed Alnwick to demonstrate their counter-attacking capabilities.
One such kick was fielded by Shell on his own 10 metre line and he then cut left to feed Bird, who took the tackle but was able to provide quick ball to Sordy, and which was shipped smartly along to Gothorp, who decided he did not require the support of Todd outside him and used his power and pace to brush aside some lacklustre tackling and run round behind the posts to touch down.
Once more Bird converted the simple kick to double the advantage.
After the interval, Alnwick effectively killed off any hope of a Northern revival with two tries in the space of five minutes. The first came after Northern were dispossessed and some good forward interplay saw the ball get to flanker James Hamilton who shrugged off tacklers to touch down by the posts and present Bird with another straightforward kick for a 0-21 lead.
The second arrived two minutes later when one of Peter Moralee’s signature long bullet passes found full-back Bird, up in the line to feed Hutchinson, who was able to send Shell on a mazy run up a narrow space on the right to touch down, far out to make it 0-26, and gather the first bonus point of the season. but Bird was unable to convert.
From then on, the forward cut and thrust continued and as the match went into the final stages, Northern acquired more ball but in the face of a very determined Alnwick defence were not able to cross the line and would find themselves thrust back into their own half after some of Warcup’s sound defensive strategic kicking and good following up. A neat chip nearly resulted in a Bird try but he was foiled by the bounce of the ball.
As sometimes happens, a series of substitutions can reduce a side’s cohesion, but replacements Witlow, Grey and Bulmer slotted in comfortably in the face of some sustained Northern forays.
Most of the final few minutes saw Northern’s attacks founder on the rocks of the Alnwick defence until a period of intense pressure on the Alnwick line.
A quick pass from the base of a ruck enabled forward Harrison to squeeze through a narrow gap on the far left for a try which no one would begrudge a hard-working side who had contributed hugely to a most enjoyable afternoon.
All that was left before the final whistle went was the failed conversion attempt.
Although there will be tougher matches before the end of the season, this was an encouraging start for Alnwick under new captain Ben Boothman and they should be well pleased with their win with the added gloss of securing the Andy Bell Cup.
Despite the occasional misfire in the line-out and the initial setback in the first scrum, the forwards more than held their own in both the loose and set-pieces and the backs were quick and alert to exploit any opportunity.
Such was the effort from the entire team and particularly the back-row and front five working as a unit, it might seem unfair to single out individuals. The entire back-row with James Hamilton to the fore were immense, and there were notable contributions from Burgess and skipper Boothman.
Behind this solid forward platform the half-back pairing of Moralee and Warcup is becoming a key factor in allowing the speed and guile of Shell to be used to the best advantage.