With bad weather postponing the previous weekend’s home fixture against Northern, Alnwick embarked on their fifth consecutive away fixture, this time away to West Hartlepool.
West have always proved to be a formidable opponent and with only six wins this season and two home games remaining, they went in to the match knowing a win here was crucial in their bid to avoid relegation.
Alnwick welcomed Ben Gothorp back into the starting XV, replacing the absent James Bird at number 8 while Rob Cuthbert, after missing the previous four fixtures with a broken hand, returned to the Alnwick bench, accompanied by Ali Blackett.
Rain overnight had left the playing surface well saturated but the afternoon’s weather was fair, and a bit of mud was not going to stop Alnwick from playing their expansive brand of rugby.
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Testing handling conditions meant a scrum was inevitably going to be one of the first acts of the game and it went in favour of the visitors, the hardened front row of Smith, Green and Clayton showing some early dominance to gain a penalty.
Following Warcup’s kick to touch and the resulting lineout, the forwards gained good ground with a driving maul before releasing Alnwick’s backs. The ball found outside centre Callum Burn, who scythed through the West Hartlepool defence with his first touch of the ball. However, good cover defence saw the ball eventually knocked on by an Alnwick hand.
Alnwick’s early dominance would momentarily come to a halt and they quickly found themselves down to 14 men, full back Smales deciding to introduce a West defender to the six studs on the bottom of his boot and earning himself a yellow card in the process.
A couple of soft penalties for offside would soon have the men from Greensfield camped on their own try line and West made their extra man count, with their prop Adam Coates eventually crossing the line, fly-half Painter adding the extra two.
The home team’s lead wouldn’t last long and Alnwick soon found themselves in the West 22, Callum Burn again breaking the line. Some strong carries from forwards Young and Clayton sucked in the West defence and Moralee was quick to spot a gap on the blindside, darting over for Alnwick’s first try. Warcup, taking over the kicking duties in the absence of Bird, failed to add the extras from wide out.
Alnwick’s second try came from more scrum dominance, Smith in particular getting the edge over his opposite man and winning another penalty. Quick thinking from Moralee saw him take a quick tap and the scrum half raced up to the West Hartlepool 22 before finding C Burn with a flat pass, the centre showing good strength to brush off the tackle and dot down under the posts, gifting Warcup and easy conversion and taking the score to 12-7 as half-time approached.
With Rob Cuthbert on for Atkinson, Ali Blackett now on for Green and Colin Phillips replacing Clayton, Alnwick knew that a strong opening 10 minutes in the second half would be crucial in determining the course of the game.
They soon, however, found themselves watching the West kicker, Painter, line up a kick at goal, the visitors penalised for being offside again. The attempt was pushed wide and Alnwick gained good territory from the 22 restart.
Any hope that West had of winning this game was soon taken away from them by the elusive running of Cuthbert, the replacement centre bursting through the midfield on the half-way line. As he rounded the full back, the attempted tackle was met with a trademark hand-off and the centre dived over for a great solo try.
Ill-discipline was starting to cost the home side dearly and a penalty just inside the West half saw the ball kicked to touch. Alnwick’s forwards were now dominating their opposite pack and a strong driving maul gave the visitors’ back line a great platform from which to attack. Quick hands from centre Hutchinson saw the ball find Jonny Burn in the midfield and a perfectly timed pass released Smales up the touchline. The full back evaded the covering defence to dive over for a classy try in the corner.
By now it was one way traffic and it wasn’t long until Alnwick were back launching another attack from their opponents’ try line. A ruck three metres from the line saw the men in blue cueing up for the ball out wide but it was flanker Hamilton who got his hands on it, receiving the pass off Moralee and making light work of the three defenders that stood in front of him, dotting down just to the right of the uprights.
Another seven points for the visitors took the score to 7-29 and put the game out of sight.
With over an hour now played, West didn’t look like scoring and injuries to both their nine and ten did little to help the home team’s chances of a comeback. However, it was West who would score next and it came on the back of a number of Alnwick errors deep in their own 22. Unfortunately for Rob Cuthbert, all those errors came from one player, the replacement centre claiming a try assist for the home team as West Hartlepool’s Will Hilditch dived over for probably the easiest try of his career.
This only spurred Alnwick on and their next play produced some great play from backs and forwards alike.
It began deep in Alnwick territory with Smales picking up a loose ball before ripping a long pass over the top to Clayton. Although no one doubted the Alnwick prop’s ability to run it in himself from 60 yards, Clayton, with two hands on the ball, drew two West Hartlepool defenders and with a great off-load found Callum Burn outside him.
Burn, now playing on the wing, wasn’t going to be stopped from 15 metres out and he dived over in the corner to score a great team try, Warcup converting the extras.
West now lacked any sort of direction and poor handling errors were gifting Alnwick possession.
A scrum on the half-way line, bang in the middle of the pitch, would provide the platform for Alnwick’s next try. A good pick-up by Gothorp at the base of the scrum saw the ball moved quickly to Moralee who needed no invitation to run in to the space in front of him. Breaking through the line untouched, the scrum half then had too much pace for the cover defence as he glided past the attempted tackler before arching round to score under the posts, the following conversion taking the score to 12-43.
With three minutes left to play, Alnwick were not finished yet and slick play from the backs deep in their own territory enabled Jonny Burn to gather the ball in some space, the winger executing a deft chip over the final defender which flanker Courty managed to gather brilliantly before powering his way over in the corner. Warcup could only hit the post with his conversion, bringing the final score to 12-48, thus inflicting West Hartlepool’s heaviest home defeat of the season.
Again, Alnwick were clinical with the ball in hand with both forwards and backs linking up well in the midfield, Courty and Clayton in particular, looking confident moving the ball through the hands. This interplay has been largley responsible for seeing Alnwick take a maximum 20 points from their last four games, all being away fixtures.
Hamilton and Gothorp carried well, both players dominating the contact area throughout the 80 minutes while the second-row pairing of Gray and Young continue to be a strong defensive force.
Next Saturday, Alnwick welcome Penrith to Greensfield in a top-of-the-table clash. With Penrith sitting only one point above Alnwick in the league, this rearranged fixture could well decide who finishes top of North East One come the end of the season. Alnwick go in to the fixture playing undoubtedly their best rugby to date as they look to get their own back following their defeat to the Cumbrian team earlier in the season.
Alnwick: J Smales, S Atkinson, C Burn, F Hutchinson, J Burn, J Warcup, P Moralee, B Gothorp, J Hamilton, B Courty, J Young, M Gray, D Clayton, L Green, D Smith. Subs: A Blackett, C Phillips, R Cuthbert.