Alnwuick see off Cleckheaton in gripping Greensfield encounter
Alnwick RFC 41-26 Cleckheaton
Alnwick welcomed not only visitors Cleckheaton to Greensfield on Saturday, but also a Spanish referee in the shape of Alberto Requena.
Clayton was back in the starting line-up, on the occasion of his 50th cap, with Fox starting the game at openside flanker. The back line, unchanged in personnel saw back three players Smales and Callum Burn swap places to full back and wing respectively. This was also Burn’s 50th club appearance as Gothorp and veteran back Gray came into the squad as replacements.
As the game started it was clear from the off that the much heavier Cleckheaton side had come North to throw their significant weight around and try to drag Alnwick into playing eight man rugby.
Their scrum started well and their driving maul tactic also caused Alnwick problems, but it was the home side who opened the scoring after some lovely back play.
From a scrum inside their own half Alnwick secured possession, and the ball was passed through the hands of Warcup, Burn and Smales to put Moralee into space on the right wing.
He made excellent ground and did well to find flanker Courty haring up the centre in support; he crossed untouched from 25m out and Bird added the extras for 7-0.
From this point Cleckheaton took a degree of control, albeit by playing very one-dimensional, unattractive rugby.
Referee Requena had his work cut out when for a number of minutes it seemed almost every breakdown there was some form of ‘afters’ aimed at the smaller Alnwick players, full back Smales and wing Burn particular targets.
When they weren’t initiating violence however, the visitors did manage the ball well, their forwards gained the upper hand over the home pack, which enabled them to score three first half tries.
All came in the tight areas of the park, making ground at scrums and driving mauls; fly half Evans kicked all three conversions to leave the score at 7-21.
Shortly before half time Alnwick did get possession and after a number of phases in the Cleckheaton half, were awarded a penalty which Bird kicked at goal, the score at the break 10-21.
Needing to keep the ball for longer and run their opposition around the park, Gray came on for the injured Ord, Moralee moving to scrum half. Prop Phillips had also come on by this point, and Gothorp arrived to bring more physicality to the forward pack.
The changes brought an immediate impact; taking a quick tap, the alert Moralee raced through the retreating defence and would surely have scored but for a last-ditch high tackle, which earned Cleckheaton sub Thrower a yellow card.
Alnwick drove the resulting lineout well and when the ball was released to the backs, Smales coasted past his opposite man to score. The conversion missed by Bird as he waited for his 1500th league point for Alnwick (15-21).
It wasn’t long before he had another opportunity however; after a good take under pressure by lock Gray, Warcup returned it with interest and the Alnwick defence was up quickly strip fullback Wilson of possession as he tried to run it out of trouble.
After a strong carry by Gothorp up the middle, Hutchinson found Burn who showed his man a clean pair of heels and put Smales in again for the score, this time converted by Bird for 22-21, his individual milestone achieved.
At this point came the decisive play; Cleckheaton had set up camp in the Alnwick 22 and were using all of their brawn to try and break through the defence. As followers of the Blue & Gold are now well used, they were quite content to defend, waiting to force a mistake. It soon arrived.
Not 10m out from his own line, lock Young intercepted a loose pass and had the foresight to move turnover ball wide. From Warcup to Cuthbert, it reached Burn who raced 40m. With the cover defence flying across he passed back to Cuthbert, drawing the final man to allow Warcup a stroll in under the posts.
A bonus-point try of genuine class, hard-earned by patient and disciplined defence. Bird added the conversion (29-21).
Now with their heads well and truly down, Cleckheaton reverted again to throwing their excessive weight around illegally, Señor Requena calling in both captains to ensure rugby continued to be played. The visitors did force some more territory however and managed eventually to cross for their own bonus point try through number eight Seddon (29-26).
From here though, Alnwick snuffed out any hope of their visitors getting back into it with two more very well taken tries. First dynamic centre Cuthbert broke the line on another barnstorming run. He passed to Courty, still running good support lines at this late stage who drew the last defender and put back row colleague Fox in to score his first try on his final Alnwick appearance (34-26).
Having now exhausted Cleckheaton’s pack, Alnwick were dominating scrums as well as every other facet of the game. Warcup passed inside to winger Gray who did well to keep the ball alive and found Moralee. When it reached the pace of Burn outside, he beat his opposite number one final time and enabled Smales to go in for his hat trick. Bird converted the last kick of the game for 41-26.
This was a satisfying victory for Alnwick, who stuck to their task well despite a number of distractions and attempts at getting them to play a different way. Both backs and forwards performed well, which they will be required to do again next week as they visit league rivals West Leeds.
* The match was sponsored by Alnwick vetinary firm Morris & Plumley.