Alnwick go top after beating leaders Penrith in vital clash

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Alnwick RFC 25-10 Penrith

After seven long weeks, and two early morning pitch inspections, rugby was finally back on the menu at Greensfield, Alnwick welcoming league leaders Penrith, in a top of the table clash on a crisp Saturday afternoon in north Northumberland.

Although the importance of this game won’t truly come to fruition until the final weekend of the season, the result could be crucial in determining who goes on to win the North East One league, with the smallest of gaps separating these two teams from the rest of the league.

Alnwick welcomed back Rob Cuthbert to the starting XV, Callum Burn moving from midfield to the wing to accommodate the return of the outside centre while James Bird returned to the back row, Ben Courty finding himself on the bench alongside Ali Blackett.

Despite forty-eight hours of constant rain prior to kick-off, sub-zero temperatures over-night and a weekend weather forecast of snow, playing conditions were near perfect, with only a stiff cross-pitch breeze offering some hindrance to the fast-flowing, expansive rugby that has seen both these teams climb to the top two spots in the league.

Despite Penrith sending the ball deep in to Alnwick territory with the kick off, the visitors soon found themselves retreating into their own 22 as Alnwick began the game at blistering pace.

With Alnwick recycling possession well in the opening exchanges, the ball found flanker James Hamilton on the half way line, who, in familiar fashion, brushed off two attempted tacklers before racing up to within 10 metres of the Penrith try line.

Lock Jonny Young found himself in the unfamiliar role of scrum half and fed the ball to James Bird who drew in the scrambling defence before floating an over-head pass to Callum Burn, the winger dotting down in the corner for the opening score. With a near impossible touchline conversion attempt into a strong wind, Bird was unable to add the extras.

This dream start for the men in blue was short lived unfortunately, and the home side would go on to spend the best part of ten minutes defending in their own half. A fumbled take from the restart following Burns try gifted possession back to the visitors and some early Penrith dominance in the scrum resulted in a penalty going the way of the visitors, the resulting kick driving Alnwick deep into their own 22.

Penrith gathered their own line out and their organised pack began driving their way up to within a metre of Alnwick’s line, the home side deemed to be offside in their attempt to prevent Penrith from scoring, giving the visitors another penalty which again was kicked to the corner. This time Penrith’s forwards were too strong for the Alnwick pack and they drove over for the try, well converted by their scrum half Graham, on a day where kicking conditions were at their toughest.

With the score now at 5 – 7 in favour of the visitors, Alnwick would begin a period of dominance that would see them go in to half time with a seven point lead, nine points coming from the boot of Bird, judging the wind perfectly each time.

Strong carries up the middle by Gothorp, Clayton and Bird was complimented by Alnwick’s slick back line who moved the ball well into the wide channels and Penrith simply could not hold out, infringing at the break down on three occasions, and on three occasions punished by Bird. Alnwick’s confidence in attack was matched by some ruthless defence, as always lead by Hamilton, who after running out of Penrith players to tackle, lined up the referee with a solid hit, much to the delight of the crowd.

With the score at 14-7, Alnwick started the second half as they ended the first, with sustained periods of pressure taking them up into the Penrith half. Although chances would present themselves on several occasions, the home side was unable to convert pressure into points, often with the last pass not quite going to hand.

Another Bird penalty would extend the home side’s lead to 10 points and Alnwick were beginning to look dominant in all aspects of the game. Rob Cuthbert was beginning to find holes in the midfield as the visitors defence tired, one run taking him through the heart of the Penrith midfield and up to within five metres of the try line, however the cover defence managed to stifle any chance Alnwick had od scoring and the visitors were able to clear their lines.

This lead to Penrith’s “purple patch”, were a sustained period of attack lead to Alnwick infringing at the breakdown, gifting Penrith an easy route into the home sides 22.

Alnwick’s defence stood strong and after absorbing all that Penrith could throw at them, the visitors had to settle for a shot at goal after the home side were penalised for being offside. The men from Cumbria settled for a shot at goal and the penalty was well converted by scrum half Graham to take the score to 17-10.

For the remainder of the game it was largely one way traffic in favour of the homes team and play rarely moved out of the Penrith half. A strong carry from Bird took play just inside opposition territory before the ball was spun out to the backs. Warcup broke through the midfield before his offload found Frank Hutchinson, the centre stepping the cover defence before accelerating up to the Penrith try line.

Alnwick’s backs were queuing up out wide to score and after a pick and go from centre Cuthbert, the ball was recycled out to Warcup, the fly half’s cut out pass finding Smales on the wing who raced into the corner to score what would prove to be the decisive try.

Alnwick, with the win now secured, were not finished yet and space out wide for Burn and Smales enabled the home side to advance deep into the Penrith half once more, a penalty at the ruck proving to be the only way the home side’s attack could be halted. Alnwick opted to take the kick at goal and deny the visitors any chance of a bonus point, Bird stepping up and dissecting the post once more to take the score to 25-10 as the clock ticked down to full time.

It would be Alnwick who would finish the game on the front foot, Smales once more attacking up the touch line, his pass finding Burn who chipped ahead for himself. The Penrith flanker was only too happy to kick the ball out and end the game, the final whistle greeted loudly by the cheers of the home supporters as Alnwick leap frogged their opponents into top spot of the league.

It is often said that it is the forwards who decide who wins the game, while the backs decide by how many points. Alnwick’s performance was testament to this, with the dominance of the forwards, in both defence and attack, laying the foundations form which Alnwick’s dangerous outside backs launched their attacks from. The dominance of the back row in particular proving to be one of the key differences between the two sides, with Gothorp, Hamilton and Bird proving to be too strong and too quick for the opposition to handle.

Now three points clear at the top of the table, Alnwick have the luxury of two more home fixtures, next week welcoming Huddersfield YMCA to Greensfield. They will fancy themselves as strong favourites going into the match having taken the spoils in the away fixture only a month ago, and with three of the five remaining games being home fixtures, Alnwick find themselves firmly in the driving seat as the season draws to a close.

Alnwick: J Smales, C Burn, R Cuthbert, F Hutchinson, J Burn, J Warcup, P Moralee, B Gothorp, J Hamilton, J Bird, J Young, M Gray, D Clayton, L Green, D Smith. Subs: A Blackett, C Phillips, B Courty.