A healthy contingent had made the journey down the A14 from Coventry ensuring a noisy crowd to greet the teams at Volac Park. It was good to hear the constant banter between the two sets of supporters for a full 80 minutes.
Just as the conditions could be described as sticky, then so could the Cambridge performance, in almost all respects except the tackling. It took about 20 minutes of today’s game for the Cambridge crowd to realise that not a lot was new in this crucial year for Cambridge’s survival in tier three rugby.
John Horlock was the only ‘new’ face in the team, making a welcome return to Cambridge after some years to slip into the second row. Danny Hunter and Steve Hipwell were also back in the starting team. Otherwise, it was the same team that had finished the Loughborough game strongly. The opening exchanges hinted that Cambridge might have a difficult time breaking down an organised Coventry defence and on 11 minutes it was the visitors who took the space given out wide to make 30 untroubled metres deep into the Cambridge 22. Coventry were quicker with their support and scored easily, although missed the conversion. 0-5.
Back to halfway and Cambridge ball retention was good but still no penetration was apparent until Pat Tapley showed his strength again from 25 metres out, shrugging off a tackle to break through. The sticky conditions meant turning and chasing was always a losing option. Defences had to be secure at the first line. When Pat ripped through the Coventry line and scored, leaving Bale an easy conversion, he suggested that the Visitors defense was not as tight as it had been back at their ground earlier in the season. 7-5 and maybe Cambridge could assert themselves from here.
Then came the second quarter deluge of Coventry tries, 3 in 20 minutes to be precise, as Coventry upped the pressure. Without any spectacular play, the visitors posed questions in open play during 3rd and 4th phases when the home defence was disorganised and incoherent. As phases developed, the Cambridge defence got narrower and narrower while the Coventry attack got wider and wider. Coventry were working much harder to free themselves from the sticky mud at the breakdown and it paid dividends. Marshalled by the lively Barker at scrum half, Coventry always committed the right number to the breakdown. Suddenly it was half time and a 7-22 deficit. In the crowd’s mind, missed conversions kept the margin surmountable but could Cambridge up the work rate and keep composure to challenge the visitor’s defence?
Coventry did their best in the second half to give Cambridge a helping hand. First by swapping 3 key forwards. Clearly their work rate had taken its toll and quickly into the second half, the Cambridge scrum became more dominant. But the first score of the second period came to Coventry. Clearing from in his own 22, John Hale’s rather aimless kick was gathered at speed in centre field by the Coventry wing. However, John had been unable to chase his kick because of a rather cynical late tackle not spotted by the ref. With John on his backside, the Cov back three swept through to score. 7-29 but still with a clear forward advantage Cambridge began to cross the gain line with more purpose. This is where the composure was found lacking. Despite getting better ball and going forwards, the Cambridge backs could still not penetrate. Resorting to a grubber kick, Bale tried to vary the attack on the Coventry 10 metre line, but it rebounded off the blitz defence and Coventry flooded through, first hacking on then picking up and with many options 40 metres out, ran in to score under the posts. Now 7-36 looked impossible to turnover.
However, Coventry were running out of energy and clearly Cambridge had plenty left and for the first time in the match started crossing the gain line with real purpose. Cambridge forwards began to dominate and after a string of penalties to the home side, they finally crossed the line, John Hale scoring after Harry Key had got close. 14-36
Now going backwards and clearly tiring, Coventry got a bit desperate and handed Cambridge a lifeline, with two yellow cards in close succession for repeated infringements. Cambridge had fresh legs with Baxter, Carrington and Bry White on for Horlock, Tapley and Watson. Against 13 men, surely Cambridge could find a couple of scores and a valuable point, or even 3 tries and a win.
The Coventry scrum had disintegrated and penalties rained down. Man of the Match Tom Fidler barrelled over as only he can – 21-36 and still 10 minutes to go.
But play became all too frenetic, with Cambridge players getting in each other’s way and not playing percentage rugby. It was the 13 man Coventry who regained their shape and composure to take the ball back down to the home 22 and exert some pressure. Like a deflating Christmas balloon, all hope rushed from the Cambridge crowd, as Macgregor killed the comeback with a score. 21-41.
Still two men up, Cambridge went back looking for a bonus point, but the Coventry charity had run out and they were going to give nothing more away and the ref called time with the final score 21-41.
Another 10 tries in a Cambridge match, but this was an ugly game of rugby, reminiscent of their trip to Ealing. These games were won by hard work and organisation rather than pace, skill and guile.
Had the Wise Men left any gifts for CRUFC players this festive season? What did they need? Lots of goals, frankly, sense yes, but perhaps not mirth, which was already abundant in the display at Loughborough. No, they will have to use last year’s toys but may be the Welsh version of the instruction manuals will have new insight into how to play by different rules.
Tries: Pat Tapley, John Hale, Tom Fidler
Conversions: Elliot Bale (x3)