Alnwick Rugby Club face a final day of the season survival showdown on Saturday – and are urging supporters to turn out in force and be the team’s 16th man.
Defeat to county rivals Morpeth last weekend (see match report below) meant that the Greensfield side’s fight to stay in North One East has gone right to the wire.
And to add extra spice to the tale, this crucial final-day battle pits the Northumbrians against relegation-threatened Middlesbrough.
The blue ‘n’ golds will go into the game four points above the boys from Boro, who are in the dropzone along with Morpeth and basement side Malton and Norton.
It means that safety is very much in Alnwick’s hands. Win, and they will play North One East rugby next season, avoiding an immediate return to Durham/Northumberland, Division One.
Not only that, but the fifth-from-bottom Northumbrians can take relative comfort in the knowledge that defeat wouldn’t necessarily send them down, as other results and bonus points could prove decisive.
But, a bad day at the office against the Teessiders, plus a positive result for fourth-bottom Sheffield, who are currently outside the relegation zone, may well dump Alnwick out of the league at the first time of asking.
However, Alnwick have home advantage for Saturday’s 3pm tussle and the club is eager to encourage a large and passionate crowd to help roar the lads to safety.
The club’s fixture secretary, Brian Lamb, said: “We are hoping for a very good crowd and urge all supporters to attend this final game and one which, hopefully, will bring a celebratory end to Andrew Shell’s tenure as captain.”
Alnwick’s first game of the North One East season, following last year’s title-winning promotion heroics, was against Middlesbrough, which ended in a 27-12 defeat. Here’s to hoping that the return fixture won’t be Alnwick’s last match at this level.
Match report – Morpeth 18 Alnwick 17
The league table is displayed prominently in Morpeth clubhouse. Sadly, it showed the home team propping up the table, facing almost certain relegation, writes Brian Lamb.
However, Alnwick did not travel down the A1 to do their neighbours a favour. They, too, were in need of points and aimed to complete the double after their victory in December.
It was a perfect day for rugby – no wind, firm ground with a little give in it and a good crowd as would be expected for a local derby.
Morpeth began the game well, camped in the Alnwick half of the field.
After 10 minutes, Boothman fortunately hauled down Dawson as the Morpeth blind-side powered for the line, however, such is Alnwick’s style of play, that just when the opposition believes that it is exerting telling pressure, a swift counter-attack left them dazed.
Morpeth were penalised for holding on in midfield. Moralee took a quick penalty, made ground then kicked the ball upfield. He would have scored but his captain beat him to the touchdown, giving Alnwick an unexpected lead.
The try was converted by Bird (0-7).
Morpeth increased their effort, threatening the Alnwick line but were kept at bay by good work from Smith, Alexander and Johnson although Johnson was almost forced to concede a penalty leading to a warning to the Alnwick captain by the referee.
The relentless pressure took its toll. After an innocuous infringement, Hamilton was shown a yellow card. He had paid the penalty for earlier misdemeanours by the Alnwick defence.
Morpeth, quick to take advantage, at last forced the ball over the line for a converted try (7-7).
Bird was to feature twice in the remaining minutes of the first half.
He kicked a lovely long-range penalty for Alnwick to regain the lead (7-10), only to suffer a moment of indecision on his own five-metre line, forcing Southeran to kill the ball in an attempt to prevent a Morpeth try.
A penalty and another yellow card resulted.
The successful kick brought the tense half to a close in what was typical derby rugby (10-10).
Alnwick had not succeeded in absorbing the Morpeth pressure without cost and were fortunate to be drawing.
Gray and Elliott came on after the break for Weddle and Johnson.
The second half began scrappily until a clever offload by Morpeth’s Parkinson to Telford saw the wing blaze over the line for an unconverted try (15-10).
The scrums were fairly evenly contested throughout the game. Unfortunately for Alnwick, it was their line-out which was not functioning well.
However, in open play they were beginning to look a little more threatening.
E Shell made a good break, spoiling it with a hand-off of a dubious nature, before Morpeth increased their lead with a penalty from an off-side on the Alnwick 22-metre line (18-10).
Alnwick now began to exert pressure and Hutchinson broke through for a well-deserved try, converted by Bird but not before Alexander and a Morpeth player were yellow-carded for their own personal encounter (18-17).
The final minutes were nail-biting and reminded Alnwick’s spectators of last week’s game against Northern.
Alnwick came close to scoring on a couple of occasions and pressure finally told when Morpeth were adjudged to be off-side 20 metres out and 10 metres in from the touch-line.
Bird had just put the ball over from the same spot – could he do it again? Answer, no and at the final whistle the score was 18-17.
Morpeth had executed the necessary things well – reasonable scrummaging, good line-out ball and accurate kicking out of hand.
Particularly in the first half, they got on the front foot with their effective tactic of driving through the middle. Alnwick, by contrast, were out of sorts.
Odd decision-making by the backs, coupled with a certain amount of indiscipline by the forwards and three yellow cards created problems throughout the afternoon.
Yet this is a good Alnwick side with plenty of talent and they need to continue playing at this level.
To do so, they must beat fellow strugglers Middlesbrough next week at Greensfield, or at least gain a bonus point in defeat, while at the same time prevent the opposition gaining a bonus point.
They will bring much support. Alnwick hope for a very good crowd and urge all supporters to attend this final game and one which, hopefully, will bring a celebratory end to Andrew Shell’s tenure as captain.
On a lighter note, John Dixon, whose company Quasam sponsors this Saturday’s game, burnt the grass on the wing for Alnwick Thirds last weekend.
He is 66 years of age.