Somehow under floodlights, wet pitches look wetter still. Hefty showers that had passed through West London left the pitch at Trailfinders glistening in that strange light cast from a mixture of setting sun and blue-white bulbs. Signs of the turf being cut up by the teams warming up were obvious and so the slippy and slidey conditions contributed to a very scrappy match punctuated by knock-ons and penalties.
That is how the game started, with Cambridge competing well at the breakdowns. After five minutes with neither side being able to catch the ball, Ealing found themselves in the Cambridge half for the first time. With their first attack of the game, they managed quick ball away from the breakdown on the right and were able to pass all the way to the left winger who took advantage of Cambridge’s narrow defense to dance down the touchline to the corner. Tom Wheatcroft showed how important he is to Ealing with his kicking by converting from the touchline. 7-0.
For the rest of the half, Ealing only really visited the Cambridge half twice, scoring both times. As in recent matches, Cambridge kept possession well and got into good positions, but when in the red zone, they could not outwit a very well organised and quick Ealing defence. One felt the Ealing defence was sometimes a bit too quick and on some occasions the ref agreed. Indeed, he did give Cambridge a great opportunity on 10 minutes when binning the Ealing 6 for a cynical, deliberate offside. But Cambridge could not convert this into tries despite being camped in the red zone for many phases. Strike man Steve Hipwell was a marked man and could not make the progress he is used to. Too often support ‘runners’ are taking the ball standing still and not crossing the gain line. And so the phases traversed sideways until a mistake allowed Ealing to clear their lines. Attempts by Cambridge to reach their strike force out wide ran the gauntlet of the Ealing midfield which was well organised. Cambridge ball was never quick enough to stretch this defence and attacks had to come through the fly half and inside centre channels. Side-steps and crash balls are not a percentage option on days like this and despite a great deal of effort, Cambridge only had a Bale penalty on 13 minutes to show for their considerable efforts with the man advantage. On their one excursion into the Cambridge half while a man down, Ealing pressured a Bale clearing kick from a scrum outside the Cambridge 22. You know when its not your day when a charge down bounces 20m and ends up nicely under the posts for an Ealing back to fall upon; an assist for the Ealing back row, an easy Wheato conversion and 14-3.
On a day when footholds were clearly not secure, the Cambridge scrum had looked solid, although securing their own ball in the difficult conditions was never certain; however it was the same for both sides. Facing 15 men again, a Cambridge scrum in midfield on their own 10m line, became a game of pinball with the ball first under Cambridge control, then Ealing then back to Cambridge, before it squirted out to willing Ealing back row hands who launched a very quick attack down the line again and around the corner for another touchdown for the left wing in the by the flagpost. A precision kick from the touchline for Wheato. 21-3
Three opportunities and 3 tries for Ealing. It looked a little unfair on Cambridge who were trying to play all the rugby. It is then one reaches the conclusion Ealing were quite happy to let Cambs make the plays and then make the mistakes. Ealing rarely committed too many people to the breakdowns and always had the fringes well defended. Cambridge were a bit slow to vary the attack and apart from fielding clearance kicks, the Ayrton brothers and Pat Tapley had been given little to work with. Chipping the on rushing defence had worked reasonably for Bale and his three quarters, but the second and third lines of defence for Ealing were as well organised as the first and their full back, Henderson, looked a high class player as the last line.
Back in the Ealing 22 again, as the half drew to a close and the floodlights had taken over completely, Cambridge finally hit the attacks harder and made ground. Another YC for Ealing, for the hooker this time, a kick to the corner by Bale and Tom Fiddler was driven over from the resulting lineout in the last play of the half. Bale didn’t connect with the conversion but one felt Cambridge had figured out how to breach the defence and convert possession and territory into meaningful points.
That Cambridge would have a man advantage for 8 minutes at the start of the second period gave the vocal travelling support some cause for optimism.
Half time 21-8
But the game continued in a similar vein. Little continuity and the balance of possession still clearly in Cambridge’s favour. Mike Gillick looked lively in the centre and against a lesser defence would have bagged some tries today. Gillick, Bale, Tapley and the Arytons got more ball and all had great darts through the first line of defence but support was never quick enough to help beat the next line. Once again early second half pressure led only to a Bale penalty 7 minutes into the half.
Then Ealing showed they had a higher gear and for the next 10 minutes decisively sealed the game with attacking pressure rather than defensive pressure. From the restart after Bale’s penalty, Cambridge let it bounce and skid and before they knew it the ball was in Ealing hands. Two very quick phases later Ealing swarmed under the posts for a score. Remarkably, Wheato hit the post with possibly his easiest kick. 26-11. In this period, Cambridge lost their most potent attacking weapons, with Hipwell getting a shoulder injury and then Pat Tapley and Harry Key taking big hits when attacking and both looking groggy as they disappeared under the space blankets. There was no shortage of young talent to bring on as replacements but Ealing took advantage of the necessary Cambridge re-arrangements, particularly in the forwards and suddenly the Cambridge scrum went backwards, making it even more difficult for Danny Hunter. Another scrappy passage in the centre of the pitch finished with Ealing swarming under the posts again on about 20 minutes. 33-11.
Cambridge scrambled to reorganise and some heroic individual defense kept the green marauders out for about 5 minutes, but a yellow card to James Palmer meant the Cambridge scrum disintegrated and another try had the Cambridge supporters hiding behind the sofa in case of a horror story. 40-11
However, the Cambridge youngsters showed some real character as the team regained its composure and got back in gear and camped out in the Ealing 22 again, much as the game had started. Pat Tapley and Elliot Bale made breaks as a few gaps appeared, but again the Ealing defence clearly never give up and on one occasion Pat Tapley must have been a bit surprised to be caught by an equally speedy Ealing winger. And so the match finished as it started. Cambridge pressure in the Ealing 22, a slip and a steal and suddenly Ealing sprung out of defence with plenty of options for all ball carriers and a final try under the posts, rather undeserved. 47-11
So that was that and while the gap between top and bottom of the league may not be as big as the score suggests, it is there and unlikely to close this season. But Cambridge must still learn something from this match because raising their game will help them get past lesser sides than Ealing that they will meet in coming weeks.
So what is the difference between the top- and bottom-of-the-table teams? The Ealing defence showed great organisation and speed of reorganisation; the decision making and numbers committed to the rucks were always to their advantage; their runners came from depth; but most effective is the way they took opportunities. The good teams in this league can seize the moment, up a gear and in the blink of an eye score points. It is not just individual speed that matters, it is collective speed. Like a machine, the professional side clicks through the gears as one unit.
Cambridge are still learning and have not had a consistent unit this season so it is unfair to make a direct comparison with the league leaders, but they are going to have to learn quickly.