Alnwick 7 Ilkley 31
North One East
This was Ilkley’s first visit to Alnwick and if they maintain their present form it may well be their last for some time as they currently occupy second place in the league and look a likely prospect for promotion.
Following good results in recent games, Alnwick had not had a game for three weeks, slipping to 11th place and looking a trifle ring-rusty at times, possibly as the result of the lay-off.
Nonetheless, they gave a good account of themselves with a performance which suggests that the gap between top and bottom is much closer in reality than would appear from either league positions or the final score.
In the event, this match, sponsored by NFU Mutual, turned out to be a big, well-organised Ilkley eventually wearing down a slightly smaller but feisty Alnwick side who, as always, punched well above their collective weight.
Surprisingly for Northumberland, there was not a breath of wind as Alnwick kicked off down the slope in bright sunshine and Ilkley immediately gave notice of intent with direct running and quick recycling which got nowhere against a rock-solid Alnwick defence.
Having weathered the initial assault, Alnwick came off best in some aerial ping-pong as Bird was able to gather some speculative Ilkley kicks and make ground with his trademark incursions to put pressure on Ilkley.
A drive by Ilkley from a line-out was held and, with a penalty from the ensuing scrum, Alnwick gained good position and Ali Gray almost broke through but desperate tackling and a fumbled pass ended the threat.
Alnwick were immediately on the attack as Todd fielded the Ilkley clearance and Hamilton and Elliot carried the move forward and gained a penalty as Ilkley failed to roll clear.
Bird’s kick hit the post but Alnwick still occupied opposition territory as strong scrummaging put pressure on Ilkley, allowing Todd and Bird a run at the defence.
A penalty to Ilkley towards midfield on their 10 metre line was reversed as scrum-half Collard got a yellow card for a disagreement and a petulant swipe after a tackle, but Bird was again off target with another rare miss.
An excellent cover tackle by Moralee just kept the visitors at bay, and a powerful Ilkley foray ended with a knock-on near Alnwick’s line.
Alnwick were able to raise the siege and from a scrum on halfway, another characteristic run by Bird saw him cross for an excellent solo try which he converted for 7-0.
Stung by this situation and with Collard back on, Ilkley pressure yielded two penalties, Kimber missing a goal attempt from 30 metres with the second, but the resulting drop-out was well fielded and moved quickly from Kimber via Monks to put winger Johnson over for a try which Kimber converted for 7-7.
Suddenly Ilkley found another gear and, as Alnwick failed to retain possession from the restart, direct running and efficient handling by Kimber, Monks and Johnson combined to put centre Nolson over near the posts and give Kimber a simple conversion for a slightly fortuitous 7-14 lead at half-time.
Optimism was dented slightly soon after the restart as, despite some good Alnwick tackling, Ilkley gained a line-out from which they moved the ball neatly through the backs for winger Magee to score wide out for 7-19, with the conversion missed.
Undaunted by this setback, Alnwick came straight back on the attack as Sutheran chased and nearly caught the restart drop-out and although Ilkley took the scrum, they were penalised for offside some 30 metres out.
The normally reliable Bird could only manage to again hit the post, but from the drop-out Alnwick attacked up the centre only for an Ilkley counter-attack to end with an accidental offside on halfway.
From the scrum, a thrust from Warcup and Bird took play forward but, although it ended in a knock-on, an immense Alnwick shove in the scrum gained a penalty as Ilkley got shunted unceremoniously backwards.
Opting for a scrum instead of a shot at goal, Alnwick’s excellent pack again drove Ilkley back over their line only to let them off the hook as the ball was deemed to have been nudged forward in the grounding.
Alnwick still kept up the pressure but gave away a penalty to let Ilkley out of jail.
From then on, Ilkley took control and despite some good tackling all round and untiring work in the loose, Alnwick were kept pegged back and efforts by Burgess, Sutheran, Hamilton and Gothorp, as so often happens, lost momentum and petered out in the face of solid defending.
Although under pressure for long periods, Alnwick had been well in contention throughout but an astute grubber kick forced them to concede a five metre line-out, where a solid catch and drive rewarded Small with the try for 7-24, with the conversion missed.
An Ilkley knock-on from the restart gave Alnwick no respite and the unremitting pressure finally broke down a stubborn defence and saw full-back Vincent sent over for 7-29, giving master puppeteer Kimber an easy conversion for 7-31 on the stroke of time.
A great effort by Alnwick but they may see this as another game of missed opportunities which could, if taken, have altered not only the entire complexion of the match but also the demands of the season’s remaining matches.
Next up are the potential banana skins of an improving Horden followed by West Hartlepool and, with the relegation zone uncomfortably close, Alnwick can ill-afford any slip-ups.
Alnwick: J Bird, H Todd, A Gray, F Hutchinson, I Gray, J Warcup, P Moralee, R Elliot, H Sordy, B Boothman (C), J Burgess, O Sutheran, M Grey, J Hamilton, B Gothorp. Subs: P Brown, G Smith, B Foy.
Alnwick scorers – Tries: Bird. Conversion: Bird. Ilkley scorers – Tries: Johnson, Nolson, Magee, Small, Vincent. Conversions: Kimber (three). Referee: Matthew Riley (Manchester Society).
Next match, Horden, away, February 21.