Having rather unexpectedly beaten Ilkley at home in October, Alnwick were looking to complete the double at Greensfield, while the visitors would be intent on revenge and reversing their league positions.
Prior to this match, generously sponsored by Morris & Plumley Veterinary Group, the sides could not have been closer in the league, both being on 51 points with Alnwick in sixth place, one spot ahead of Ilkley, only by virtue of mathematical technicalities.
This suggested that this would be a lively and keenly contested game and though Alnwick were worthy winners the outcome was finely balanced with Ilkley in contention right up the end.
By kick-off time, storm Eric had obligingly moved the rain away leaving a bright sunny afternoon with a strong diagonal wind which would test the kicking capabilities of both teams as well as adding risk to any long passes.
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It is to the credit of both sides that they dealt well with the conditions and made the most of a good pitch to produce some entertaining and enterprising rugby.
Ilkley kicked off with the sun behind them and things didn’t start well for Alnwick as the ball was spilled forward in attempting to catch the kick-off in their own 22.
From the scrum Ilkley attacked the narrow side before gaining a penalty and opting for another scrum. Failing to gain anything from the advantage played from a further penalty, Ilkley took a tap penalty at the mark and quick hands put winger Johnson over on the right for 0-5 after only three minutes with Ramsay’s conversion attempt defeated by the wind.
Alnwick’s response came three minutes later. Gaining a 5m line-out from a penalty, prop Clayton was driven over from a clean catch-and-drive for 5-5 , but Bird’s conversion attempt from the left touchline stalled in the wind.
Aided by three penalties after the re-start, Ilkley mounted a period of pressure during which Alnwick’s industrious Courty was injured and had to be replaced by Gray.
A fourth penalty then yielded a line-out just inside Alnwick’s 22 on the right and after a probe to the left by Ilkley’s backs was halted, they moved the ball quickly back to the right. Some neat inter-passing again put winger Johnson over but this time near enough to the posts for Ramsay to convert tidily across the wind for 5-12.
From the re-start Alnwick couldn’t gain from a line-out on Ilkley’s 22 when the wind carried an Ilkley clearance straight into touch but following a further line-out on half-way on the right, were awarded a penalty on Ilkley’s 22 in midfield. Bird judge the wind to a nicety to make it 8-12.
There was no further score in the 10 minutes before half-time but matters were finely poised and it took solid defending from Alnwick to withstand sustained Ilkley pressure.
An Alnwick half-time re-shuffle saw Greer replace Clayton with Atkinson making way for Moralee at full-back and Ord stepping in at scrum-half.
Within 10 minutes of the re-start a Bird penalty pulled Alnwick back to 11-12 and using the wind more effectively than Ilkley had in the first half they were able to keep Ilkley penned in their own 22.
Alnwick’s forwards had the upper hand in the set-scrums from the beginning and after a series of scrums and almost scoring in the corner, the ball was shifted smartly from a ruck and C Burn, having come close previously, powered through a half- gap to touch down for 16-12 with Bird unable to convert.
Ilkley put themselves on the back foot from a poor re-start and were unable to escape from their 22 in the face of continuous Alnwick pressure.
This eventually told as the hard work of the tireless Alnwick locks, Bird and Young, was rewarded when Bird finally broke the initial defences to storm to the line and almost score himself. His popped pass found winger Holmes whose juggling skills enabled him to touch down under the posts with Bird adding the conversion for 23-12.
In the closing minutes Ilkley finally managed to break into Alnwick’s half and were determinedly looking for a score right up to the end but Alnwick’s line-speed and energetic tackling saw them safely home.
Alnwick: S Atkinson, J Burn, R Cuthbert, F Hutchinson, M Holmes, C Burn, P. Moralee (Capt), D Clayton, H Burn, D Smith, J Bird, J Young, B Courty, J Hamilton, B Gothorp. Subs: C Greer, S Ord, M Gray.
Referee: Nathan Howarth.
Next match: Hull (Home) Saturday, Feb 16, 2.15pm ko.