Captain Dick Wallin expertly crafted a balanced squad featuring a blend of young and old players for Saturday’s league fixture away at Ely. In truth the blending did not take much thought as the ingredients for the mix featured whoever could make it, plus a few players that didn’t.
So with 19 of the 22 selected players present Cambridge took to the field with an assortment of riches and old blokes, on a day that featured several Exiles debutants and a team warmup that included many introductions to put names to unfamiliar faces.
It was unsurprising then that whilst winning plenty of ball and making most of the running in the first half Cambridge were unable to find the breakthrough to score. Perhaps it was frustration or disbelief at another Ely covering tackle stopping a Cambridge player on the break, that led to Ely turning over possession and scoring the first try very much against the run of play.
This led to a surge of belief from Ely and a dropping of heads by Cambridge and after a period of Ely dominance at the breakdown with some particularly effective rucking, again the men in black and yellow found space and linked well to score just before half time.
This setback and the surprise at finding themselves 10-0 down at half time led to a Cambridge rethink. Rugby can be a complex tactical game, and although possessing clearly faster backs and a smaller pack than the opposition, somewhat counter intuitively, Cambridge started the second half with more patience and took the Ely pack on at their own game, by driving straight through the larger opposition forwards, Recycling and repeating these forward drives created a lot more space out wide and creating overlaps in the backs then turns rugby into a very simple numbers game.
After ten minutes of reasserting dominance and possession, space was created on the right for a relatively simple dot down by the right wing Benji Beer and although the conversion attempt from close to the touchline was not made, confidence returned to Cambridge. Toby Renwick was now dominating the midfield with surges upfield and it was from one of these runs that he was able to find Benji in support for a well worked second try under the posts, which was duly converted.
Ely, unable to cope with the change in Cambridge tactics were committing offences at the breakdown and from one of these Darren Messenger took aim from in front of the posts and converted a penalty to go 5 points clear. Ely heads were dropping and after another strong surge upfield initiated by Captain Dick deftly catching an Ely chip, a gap was found on the right for Cambridge’s left wing Aidan to cross the try line in the corner and with quick thinking run around towards the posts to score, making the conversion that bit simpler.
With a 12 point lead in the bag perhaps Cambridge slightly went to sleep, or was it oxygen deprivation? Whichever it was, Ely had not given up and from an attempted drop goal, which was either an attempt to use up time, or in celebration of Jonny’s ‘shot duck’ effort 10 years earlier in Sydney, a 22 dropout was gifted to Ely who used it well to break free from their half and score a third try, giving them hope and raising their sprits, trailing now by 7 points 15-22 it was going to be a close final few minutes.
Having established that there was time for another play Cambridge kicked long and saw this returned in interest by the Ely right winger, who obviously specialises in long range scores as the shouts from the sideline were “go on win it for us!” This was confusing as the win was a mathematical impossibility, although the draw from a converted try was very possible. No bother though, as the winger kicked ahead and the ball was cleared carefully into touch and onto the hockey astroturf by Cambridge and greeted with the final whistle.
The tight nature of the game meant that three of the bench didn’t get onto the pitch, Sam, Julian and Gerald, for which many thanks to them.
Captain’s Postscript: After a great game, but taking a big hit late in the match and suffering an uncomfortable night, full back Ben Charlton went to hospital on Sunday morning to discover a broken rib and potential liver damage! He was kept in overnight and the Exiles wish him the very best of luck with a successful return to good health in time for Christmas