1st XV Match Report - Saturday 10th February
MATCH REPORT by BOB CHAMPION
“Never mind the weather”, as the old song goes, as long as we’re together; anything is possible. Thankfully there were no complaints from Pontefract, or the Referee as to the pitch or weather conditions and a game was agreed to be played on the main pitch at Mallorie Park. If a musical vein was to be followed, at this point and quite relevant with Easter fast approaching, one might be tempted to whistle Eric Idle’s seminal piece: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. Out of form Ripon versus league leaders Pontefract, not an obvious recipe for success for the hosts. Out of form Ripon pack, versus out of form (all season) Pontefract pack; well that opened up an avenue for a decent game. “Best backs in the league” versus Ripon’s best selection on the day; again an opportunity for The Blues’ subtle blend of youth and experience to shine. There was despite the dull weather, a brightness about Ripon’s display, which whilst not delivering the hoped for win, gave the visitors some food for thought and produced a game in which each team won a half.
Thus, with the scene set for what the majority of pundits saw as a forthcoming whitewash for the visitors, Ripon ground out a gritty display of courage, fortitude, ambition and belief. Bizarrely, both the touchline and bar were largely devoid of interested onlookers, the Ripon and England home games both clearly not attracting members and friends alike in numbers to make either a special occasion for the local loyal.
Ripon have worked so hard recently on their discipline and for the third week in succession, held the penalty count against them to single figures. Unlike Pontefract, who gave away ten penalties for offences that the Referee saw and suffered two yellow carded players for persistent offences. Perhaps if the Referee had seen more of the visitor’s interpretation of fair contact, particularly in the tackle area, the penalty count and absented players may have been higher and given Ripon even more of an advantage. Moot points and two sides to every story etc., so enough of that.
Opting for stability and the greater good of the club, Ripon selected a 17 man squad rather than the usual 18. Recycling the majority and accommodating one positional change, the only addition was the recall of Adam Newcombe to the bench. The pack remained the same and the only change in the backs was the affirmation of Ed Challis as a starter in the Centres. Making his 1st XV debut was U17 forward Will Smith, who when introduced into the second half gave a gripping performance, which both showed his quality as a forward to watch for the future, as well as the benefits of Ripon’s current academy system.
In cool conditions, with a slimy pitch and a modest sideways on breeze, Ripon completely messed up the opening kick off and gifted the visitors with a line out throw in on the home 22 metre line. From that possession, Ponte probed well towards the home line and it was only after nearly 10 minutes of pressure that Ripon broke out through Harry Scurr and Euan Findlay. From then the early exchanges were mostly even and much of the action took place between the two packs. Ripon looked largely in control of their scrum and through the course of the game took three Ponte put ins and stole four visitor’s line outs. Critical however, to the outcome of such games, is the conversion of pressure into points. In this respect, Pontefract made perhaps four serious attempts on the Ripon line and scored tries from three of them. Ripon however, made perhaps five or six serious attempts and were repulsed from all but two. Scoring in the “red zone” is an absolute must for the future. Huge efforts are made to get so close to the line and yet simple errors, or over-hastiness, just seem to let the side down.
Nearing the end of the first quarter, the visitors started to piece together some exciting open play. An exploitation of open space in the right field, saw the Ponte Fly Half release their Right Wing for the opening try, which was converted to take the score to 0 – 7 at 13 minutes. After the restart, the visitors pressed to hold Ripon in defence. From an attacking handling error, Ripon won the ensuing scrum and unleashed Euan Findlay, only to be cynically brought down by a high tackle. In the attempts to prevent any further damage, skipper Barker was rewarded for his peace-keeping efforts by a right hook from a Pontefract forward, which resulted in him being removed from play for the rest of the game for restorative treatment. Ironically, at this point, the Pontefract scrum was creaking considerably and their line out just as bad, so the loss of Ripon’s largest forward and team leader, might have been seen as a killer blow by the visitors.
Probably not in keeping with the visitors’ game plan, Ripon however continued to defend stoutly and counter robustly. On the half hour mark, Ponte took the initiative from a penalty touch kick to initiate a succession of driving plays. Held up on the line, some confident recycling saw the ball shipped quickly to the right and Ponte snapped up their second converted try. Ripon responded well to the challenge and not considering the score-line to be 0 – 14, played on with passion and commitment. Great defence by the visitors kept Ripon at bay, to the extent that two line crossings in Ripon’s favour resulted in undiscernible touchdowns. Testament to the visitors’ resolve that such threats were snuffed out emphatically.
So the first half ended with a score-line of 0 – 14 and perhaps the visitors thinking that had they had ball carriers and recyclers, such as Scurr, Findlay and Dalby, who made a huge impact and repeatedly sucked in defenders; they might have made a greater influence on the game.
The second half, saw a Ripon side undaunted and unaffected by the nil scoring first session. Such is the resolve and character of the squad, that they went on to win the second half 12 – 8. Not enough to win the game, or indeed secure a losing bonus point; but sufficient to show the best team in the league that they can be held to a game that resulted in three tries to two and a show of dominance from a forward pack that must surely make Pontefract think about their options for next season if they get promoted?
The remainder of the game saw much attacking play and ball retention by Ripon that built upon last week’s victory, but was lean in yielding results. Before that rally took effect however and against the run of play, after 10 minutes of pressure, Ripon kicked out of defence. The visitors’ line out worked and shovelling the ball wide quickly, they exploited Ripon’s propensity to fly in to the ball carrier and so Ponte ran in for their third try, which remained unconverted to take the score to 0 – 19.
The Ripon confidence on the ball improved, as did the error count. Slowly Ripon built up the intensity of play and through the likes of Dalby, Scurr and Newcombe, started to do some damage up front. In the backs, Graham and Leeming made good yardage and Callum Findlay looked like a natural out on the Right Wing; both in his defensive positioning and counter-attacking ability. Credit also to Audsley-Beck, for another polished performance at Scrum half and for his and half back partner Watkinson for their great communications and defensive alignment.
As the game slipped into the final quarter, Ripon still played like they wanted to score and possibly win. At 24 minutes, with the visitors off side, Tom Leeming took advantage and set off down the slope. With Tom Graham in hot pursuit, the beating of the defence was a formality and Graham crossed the line with ease. Whitaker, having not been called up to kick for the last hour and at the end of his range, understandably missed the conversion attempt to leave the score at 5 – 19.
Against the run of play from the restart, Ponte got within striking distance of the home line and after one of only three indiscretions from Ripon, converted the penalty to take the score to what might have appeared to be an insurmountable 5 – 22.
Undeterred, Ripon did indeed fight back and dominated all phases of the last ten minutes. Pontefract defended securely, but were unable to break out and Ripon again, through the likes of Butler, Graham and Euan Findlay, battered close to the visitors’ line. A hastily found touch kick gave Ripon the line out throw in close to the Ponte line. A concerted series of driving mauls saw Adam Newcombe plunge over for Ripon’s second try, which Whitaker converted to make the score a more creditable 12 – 22.
Despite a late flourish by the visitors, which ended in some boundary pushing “sledging” and quite unnecessarily hysterical laughter on behalf of the visitors, presumably at their relief at winning, the score went the wrong way for Ripon, but not for want of trying.
Ripon will take heart and much confidence from this win. There are many very difficult games remaining to be played and such performances will show Ripon that they are capable of asserting themselves on games and coming up with favourable results.
Next Saturday, Ripon travel to North Leeds to take on Yarnbury, in what could be a defining fixture for both clubs. Yarnbury will obviously be keen to move back into contention in the promotion zone and Ripon will undoubtedly be fighting hard to move out of the relegation zone. Travelling supporters willing to make the short hop to Horsforth will be very welcome. Despite the brighter afternoons, kick offs remain at 2.15.