The Cambridge faithful were pleased to find that Loughborough was the only place in Great Britain where it was not raining at 2 o’clock, such that they could leave their sou’westers and wellies in the car. Not that the university town had escaped previous deluge. Helpfully, the University had attached numerous notices to the barriers surrounding the pitch stating “Caution: slippery when wet”. The Cambridge team could have done with one of these attached to the ball.
Despite the conditions this match was far more entertaining than last weeks affair at Ealing. But the team that adapted quickest to the slime would get the upper hand. And it was the Students who first took the game to Cambridge forcing mistake after mistake. Realising that there was a 50:50 chance of a Cambridge player catching a pass or a kick, the Students’ half backs peppered the back three with kicks, the frequency and accuracy of which improved as the first half went on. Two of the Student’s first half tries were direct results of ambitious handling from Cambridge following high kicks.
To be fair, both teams tried to play normal rugby but one has to adopt a percentage approach when the ball resembles a bar of soap. Playing down the slope, the Students started more urgently and put Cambridge on the back foot right away. Responding, Cambridge were a bit too urgent and serially infringed, first leading to penalty kicks and a 6-0 deficit within 5 mins, then to a penalty try when after 12 mins the ref had enough blowing of his whistle. 13-0.
Then the Cambridge midfield was exposed on halfway as the Students, gaining in confidence all the time, outnumbered their opponents and their outside centre slipped through the a gap that opened up and although Mike Aryton at full back took his man, the students had flooded through the gap and Mike on his own had no chance. 20-0 This was clearly not a day to be turned and have to run back to defend and the Loughborough half-backs started to exploit this ruthlessly by kicking relentlessly down the slope. On another, drier, day most of these kicks would have been useless. But today it was a hugely effective tactic, often because some catching technique was found wanting but also because Cambridge were caught being far too ambitious in the pass away from the catcher, leaving the back three isolated and scrabbling for the ball in the slime.
The final two Students’ tries were both as a direct result of this aerial bombardment; first was from a series of phases following a drop on Cambridge’s 22 and the second from a slightly unlucky attempted pick up by Albert Portsmouth, starting on the wing today. This latter case illustrated the basic problem. A kick over the top had been gathered by Pat Tapley or Mike Ayrton, can’t remember which, and a rocket of a spinning pass ended up on the floor. Albert, coming from depth, slid to secure the ball but the bow wave that this generated pushed the ball out of his reach for the on rushing Student winger to simply hack the ball forward 30 metres just into the Cambridge in goal area. Would the ball reach the dead ball line? No, and the Loughborough scorer dived on the ball and into the wettest corner of the pitch. The Ref had to consult with his fellow judge before awarding the winger 5 for degree of difficulty but none for style when entering the water, given the size of the splash, although his teammate did add 2 for a tricky conversion. All of this had the Student’s leading 34-0 and the Cambridge onlookers crying out for some composure and coherent, percentage rugby.
It was only then that Cambridge realised that the conditions were the same for both sides and that they were allowed to do to Loughborough what the Students had done to them for the last 20 minutes. I should say at this point that in these conditions, the natural ball handlers stand out and in this respect Elliot Bale showed his class – I don’t recall him dropping a ball all day and he looked very secure with balls flying at his feet or above his head. Elliot varied the kick off and Cambridge took advantage of the Students possibly relaxing a little as the half drew to a close. Some pressure on the Students 22 and suddenly it was them making the mistakes. Cambridge attacked in tighter formation, asking less of receivers with more sympathetic passes. An attack from 30m out going right and despite a disgraceful shoulder-barge tackle in mid-field on Harry Key, he managed to cleverly release Pat Tapley for one of Pat's specials, hitting the line hard fast and straight and then rounding the last man for the only score at the top end of the pitch. On today’s evidence, those should count double at this ground! Elliott Bale converted and Cambridge had something to cling on to going into half time. 34-7
To say Cambridge wrested control of the game from that point is putting it a bit strongly. In fact, the first 10 minutes of the second period, when all the game was compressed between the 10m lines and punctuated by knock-ons resulting from the ball sliding through hands and bouncing off chest or face, used up too much time for a Cambridge rally to catch up. Eventually, Bale showed his class kicking from hand with a variety of chips and punts that began to force the home side backwards. Cambridge were far more positive but frustratingly lost the ball at the ruck on 4th or 5th phase as support got thinner on the ground. Lineouts were a bit of a lottery and calls that work brilliantly on a dry day in September are high risk on wet, slimy days like this. But Cambridge began to exert authority and returning the compliment, had the Students at sixes and sevens retreating down the slope. Unfortunately Tom Dougherty, playing well at scrum half, took a knock about 17mins into the half. Adam White stepped up to the plate as substitute and with John Hale also on, making a welcome comeback from his head injury in October, some clean red and yellow shirts stood out under the floodlights. Renewed impetus and finally pressure on the home side’s line. The forwards took responsibility and Rob Conquest, who had been working hard and skillfully all game, and Gareth Baxter attacked hard, committing defenders eventually allowing Tom Fidler to score a characteristic try from 3m out with 4 defenders grappling with him as somehow he touched down. 34-14 with the Bale conversion.
Fired up Cambridge were back down in the Students’ 22 within a couple of plays. Again some frustrating knockons and turnovers after several phases interrupted the Cambridge comeback, but a rousing scrum 10 m out under the home side’s posts, was the highlight of the game. The visiting forwards roared with delight as they disintegrated the Student’s scrum and the resulting turnover eventually led to a neat little Mike Gillick dink kick for the Students’ defence to make a mess of and John Hale calmly dropping on the loose ball while others around him engaged in a spot of mud wrestling. Bale added the extras (apparently) to make it 34-21 with about 10 minutes to go. Was there time left?
The pattern so far for both sides had been that a score was necessarily preceded by several turnovers due to the conditions, so Cambridge would have to cut these out if they had time to score twice more. Loughborough threw on some fresh legs throughout the team and managed to defend higher up the pitch again. This led to two penalty opportunities to them, which although missed took up valuable time. They even spurned a try to kill off the game after their 12 avoided a flying midfield tackle. A great cover tackle by Tapley shows how one should never give up on days like this because being forced to pass out of the tackle 10m out, the 12 gave a bomb to his support runner who did what many had done all day and let it slip through his hands onto his chest and forwards onto the ground. Cambridge got back on the attack but time had run out. A frustrating, but actually quite entertaining game, slid to a close as the murk turned into darkness. Remarkably not a drop of rain all match.
Cambridge had beaten Loughborough at home early in the season. Both teams have improved since then, but the Students have grown more in stature and confidence and this was the difference today. The result is mid-table security for them half-way through the season, and bottom of the table frustration for Cambridge.
I wonder what is on Glen's wish list to Santa this year. A small parcel of luck perhaps? Perhaps some soothing, calmness pills that clear heads under pressure. A large cheque? But more likely a large bottle of the special confidence potion that he needs to sprinkle liberally at the start of every game from now on.
Merry Christmas CRUFC!
Tries: Pat Tapley, Tom Fidler, John Hale
Conversions: Elliot Bale (x3)