Alnwick travelled to Driffield on Saturday for their first of five away games in six weeks. Having beaten their opponents 28-8 at Greensfield earlier in the season, hopes were high as they emerged into bright sunshine on a cold day in Yorkshire.
Enforced changes saw Philips start on the front row for the absent Clayton, and Smales return on the wing for J. Burn, both players away skiing. Prop Neil came into the squad for the first time in six years, ably supported by Fox and Davidson.
Given what was at stake in this game - Alnwick knowing any kind of victory would put them within three points of the top with two games in hand, and Driffield just as keen to stretch their advantage before these, it was always going to be a tight and cagey affair settled by the odd point or two.
Alnwick started the game brightly, with a couple of foraging bursts into the Driffield half from Bird and Ord, the latter returning to a club he played for not long ago. An infringement in front of the posts enabled number eight Bird to open the scoring for Alnwick (0-3), and they continued to build on a promising opening.
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Driffield lock Douglas was yellow carded for his second high tackle in the opening quarter, but Alnwick could not take further advantage.
At this point Hamilton limped off with an injury replaced by Fox, and on 17 minutes Driffield wrestled control of the ball from the away side, making their own headway into the Alnwick twenty-two. The away side conceded a penalty to prevent anything worse and scores were tied at 3-3.
For the remainder of the first half Driffield held the upper hand, kicking very well, and gaining a lot of territory as reward. Alnwick’s lineout functioned well generally, but a mistake at the front afforded turnover ball which was kicked deep into their twenty two. When C. Burn was penalised for killing the ball, he was given 10 minutes in the sin bin. Kicking the resulting penalty to the corner, Driffield crashed over for a try on 35 minutes, converted for 10-3.
To their credit, a man down and having seen little of the ball in the last 20 minutes, Alnwick rallied before half time. Their first good kick of the day, from Moralee, brought an attacking scrum, which Bird carried hard into midfield. When Driffield did not release, he reduced arrears to four points, and 10-6 at half time.
The second half continued as much of the first had done; Driffield maintaining possession very well and putting Alnwick under pressure, the Blue & Gold defence giving nothing away and performing very well. Often, when it looked as though the home side may exploit the outside channels, centre Cuthbert covered acres of ground to make tackles and ensure line-breaks were at a premium.
From a rare penalty, Driffield had another chance at the driving maul which bore fruit in the first half, this time under great pressure, and after defending for so long, Alnwick were able to keep them out, eventually clearing up-field.
On 60 minutes Alnwick had engineered themselves attacking possession in the Driffield half, scrummaging well and effectively clearing the tackle area. When they forced another penalty in front of the posts, Bird made the score 10-9, and the sense that the next score would win it began to creep in.
Still the home side maintained possession for long periods, their big forward runners being felled like trees by the Alnwick defence, who were well disciplined as well, affording few chances to take further control. Second row partnership of Young & Gray were named joint Men of the Match afterwards for their defensive work, but honourable mentions must go also to Smith on the front row, and the back row of Courty, Bird & Fox.
As the final couple of minutes came round, Alnwick won a penalty and Warcup kicked well up to the twenty-two. Green’s lineout won, first Hutchinson, then Philips, Young and Bird took turns at trying to escape the Driffield defence. When it was clear that they were not going to present an opportunity to Bird from the tee, Warcup took on a drop goal, connecting well but seeing it drift agonisingly wide with the final kick of the game.
In truth Alnwick may feel they didn’t play as well as they can with the ball on Saturday, but as followers of both sides acknowledged during and after the game, there are not many sides that will play better than this when without it, in North One East this season.
A hard-fought defeat was tough to take, but Alnwick know they still have it in their own hands, and there will be twists and turns to come yet.
This Saturday Alnwick look to bounce back at home to Cleckheaton, with a pre-match lunch available by emailing Dennis Hetherington: [email protected] All welcome, arrive 12.00pm for lunch at 12.30pm, £15 for two courses and wine/soft drink.