Promotion hopes and Ripon RUFC have rarely been uttered in the same sentence in the bar at Mallorie Park, or in the streets of the city itself. Certainly not much in the last ten years at least. Unlike Ripon’s doughty opponents Hemsworth at the moment, where promotion hopes and relegation fears have clearly been hot topics of conversation within 12 months of each other. Having been at the bottom end of a highly competitive division such as this on many occasions, our sympathy goes out to Hemsworth, who are looking very likely to be back in Counties Three Yorkshire before the ink dried on their programme covers. Ripon, on the other hand, whilst not the completely polished item yet, continue to go from strength to strength and emerged from this do or die encounter, very much the doers.
Hats off to the visitors, who played the full 80 minutes with passion and intensity and forced Ripon neatly into their comfort zone of soaking up pressure and unleashing their powerful backs to run in seven of the eight Tries scored on the day. Two well-crafted Tries by Hemsworth, one in each half, showed their indomitable spirit and quick thinking and a grim reminder to stay switched on, regardless of the scoreline. Those momentary lapses in concentration, for Ripon showed the need to stay alert at Penalty situations and keep their composure and discipline under pressure.
On the matter of discipline, this ranked as one of The Blues’ top five examples this season, of control and making understanding the way the game was being refereed, work to their advantage. With only eight Penalties conceded during the whole game, Ripon exceeded their target of keeping the indiscretions down to single figures and seriously limited the opposition’s opportunity to gain points advantage. As it was, seven of Hemsworth’s points came from a quickly taken Penalty and a total of 19 of Ripon’s points were gained under similar circumstances. The warning is clear – concede less Penalties, concede less points.
Having mixed fortunes in previous weeks, the message in the dressing room was clear and sharp. The squad so far has been toying with its potential and so really needed to build up their self-belief and confidence in each other. The message was to focus on getting the basics right as ever, as well as to embrace yet more changes in the squad and get on with playing for each other to perform to their expectations. That’s just what they did.
This week’s selection saw a further ten changes from the previous week’s line up, some forced by injury, others by unavailability and yet others just to seek the perfect combination of the talent available. In total there were five recalls and five positional changes.
At Full Back, Mikey Bray made an emphatic return from his oriental adventures, with a 15-point tally from a Try and five Conversions. Solid in defence when demanded, Bray’s contribution covered all aspects of the game, with some elusive and at times, brave running, pin point passing to get play moving and precision kicking for territorial gains. The Wings saw Tom Graham put in yet another huge shift with and without the ball, his “they shall not pass” defensive play saw attacks reduced to rubble and his numerous spearpoint attacking runs, left debris all over the place and rewarded his efforts with two outstanding first half Tries. Harvey Hooley played a sublime supporting role on the other Wing, cropping up all over the place and making hard and very brave yards. Despite his diminutive stature, Hooley is yet another Ripon youngster who consistently punches above his weight and adds so much positivity to the game. This week’s Centres saw Tom Senior staking a claim for the Inside slot vacated by Barrett due to injury and looked just like he grew there. With a first half Try to his credit, Senior has adapted brilliantly to adult Rugby and looks to have a solid future ahead of him. The Outside berth saw a move to bring recently re-engaged James Woolfenden closer to the heart of the action. The “Wolfman” played up to expectations nicely, with a Try in each half, some enterprising play-making and another master class in tackling technique and will surely benefit himself and The Blues by committing himself to availability for the remainder of the season and beyond.
At half back, Archie Thompson dominated control of the midfield, with his tactical kicking, aggressive defensive play and no-nonsense progress with ball in hand. Matt Binks completed the line up in his first start in this squad at Scrum Half and put in a sterling performance through all phases of the game.
In the pack, last week’s front row lived to fight again, with George Evans at Loose Head from the start and putting a solid mark on the game with some customarily effective carries and shuddering tackles. Jordan Payne kept his place at Hooker and added some bite going forward, as well as a gritty contribution in the set piece. Dom Dalby, a first pick at Tight Head, did his usual damage wherever he roamed. This week’s second row saw a change, with skipper Iain Barker teaming up with Tom Austin, guesting from the back row this week, both of whom showed immeasurable grit where it mattered. The back row again saw some familiar faces though slightly reorganised. James Pearce started at Blind Side and had a strong game carrying and in defence but also added a new dimension when called on to throw into the line outs. Freddy Wharton managed a full game at Open Side, without responding to the call of the wild to join the backs and nabbed the opening Try of the second half to reward him for his close support play. With Perez taking a week off, the natural succession was young Harry Veitch, who put in a superhuman and man of the match award winning performance at Number 8. This week’s bench saw the legendary South Sea Islander Marika Koroiyadi rejoin the squad as front row replacement but as the game went by “The Mack” did sterling duty in the set piece and then set the field ablaze with his running lines, support play and precision handling. Joe Middlemiss added a solid presence to the finishers and Jacob Drane completed the line up for a forward dominated replacement option, but as gifted and talent trio as ever, graced the Ripon bench.
In not dissimilar conditions to last week, Ripon opted to kick uphill and into the moderate but chill breeze. The previous few days’ rain made for a heavy surface at Mallorie Park and The Blues were looking to not get bogged down in a war of attrition with the heavyweight opposition. After some brief interchanges from the start, Ripon took control at five minutes after a scrum just inside the visitors’ half. The steady ball was shifted left by Binks to Thompson to run a straight line and feed Senior, who in turn offloaded to Woolfenden to evade two tackles and touch down. Bray’s Conversion made it 7 – 0.
Next up after 12 minutes, was a superb Blues counter from a Hemsworth scrum. The visitors looked to run out of defence and after a dropped ball in the Centres, Woolfenden hacked on some 30 metres. The ball scudded sideways towards the end of its trajectory and neatly into the open arms of Tom Graham. “Tommy G” with only three men to beat, saw this as an open invitation to increase the score and with his touch down and Bray’s conversion, the score was 14 – 0.
Barely able to catch his breath, Graham was back in action again after a Ripon attack was taken forward by Dalby and Woolfenden and the burly Wing was launched into the heart of the opposition to touch down again. Tommy’s second Try went unconverted but the score of 19 – 0 was looking too good to be true for Ripon. The next passage of play saw Payne and Veitch recover possession and release Thompson to make some ground. From a Penalty that followed, Evans and Dalby carried hard to make good ground and after play switched sides, Bray chipped forward. Senior chased and beat the opposition to the bounce and carried over for Ripon’s fourth and Bonus Point winning Try at 25 minutes. Bray’s Conversion took the score to 26 – 0 and all was looking good for The Blues.
Ripon seemed to relax the pressure somewhat and with the lead as it was, this could be forgiven. However, Hemsworth were keen to fight on and despite some enterprising play by the hosts in the last few minutes of the half, the visitors finished strongly and with a Converted Try from a succession of quickly taken Penalties and driving forward play, saw out the first half at 26 – 7.
The restart of the second half didn’t go well for The Blues as Veitch was penalised for a breakdown offence. Some personnel changes then disrupted the cohesion of the pack rather than enhanced it and soon the visitors were organising their attacks closer and closer to the home line. The pressure eventually told and at seven minutes into the half, Hemsworth mounted a clever attack resulting in a chip over the home defence. Binks bravely chased for safety but was beaten on the turn and the visitors crossed for their second Try. With no conversion the score went to 26 -12 and fortunately, that’s where the visitor’s scoring efforts ended. Not for want of trying and game to the end, Hemsworth put up a solid struggle and competed at all phases, particularly at the set piece and the breakdown, where their counter-rucking caused all manner of disruption.
After a further five minutes, Ripon were again on the front foot and try as they might, the visitors just couldn’t live with the pace of the host’s game plan or their commitment to retaining possession. From a Ripon clearance, Graham kept the ball in play and whilst many stood and watched in awe, Tommy disappeared into a melee of defenders to appear unscathed from perhaps four or five attempted tackles. With just the Full Back to beat and keen to avoid the penalties associated with scoring a hat-trick, Graham desperately held up looking for support until the ever-present Freddy Wharton cropped up and obliged. Bray’s Conversion was made good with the assistance of the left upright and the score settled nicely at 33 – 12.
After a couple of Penalty exchanges for breakdown offences, which both sides looked to take quickly. From a scrum offence, Bray went for the long touch kick and was fortunate that the Hemsworth Wing’s hands were too cold or just not up to catching the ball. Woolfenden was quick to chase up and picked up the loose ball to sprint in from half way and dodging a few would-be tacklers to score Ripon’s sixth Try. Bray was just wide with the Conversion attempt and so the score stayed at 38 – 12.
Some earnest exchanges followed from Hemsworth, where they really put some effort into developing their game. Alas, they couldn’t string together the necessary phases and it wasn’t too long before Ripon were knocking on the door again. Just into the final quarter, a break out by Harvey Hooley saw The Blues press deep into Hemsworth territory again. Woolfenden made some yards and fed Koroiyadi acting as a spare Wing, the “Flying Fijian” dazzled with his footwork, handling skills and pace, to take play on for some 40 metres before offloading to Thompson to touch down. This Conversion was just out of Bray’s reach but the score of 43 – 12 was giving Ripon a great feel-good factor.
The closing minutes of the game saw Ripon shift up a gear as far as their commitment, energy, discipline and teamwork was concerned. Hemsworth looked shaky at times but reined in their self-control and discipline, so kept the intensity of play going and their hopes of more points. Alas, an offence caused during a water break, gave The Blues the final upper hand. From the Penalty line out, Ripon shifted the ball left from Binks to Thompson and then Bray joined the line drifting left. “The Giraffe” feigned left as he looked to take play out to the Wing but stepped back in neatly after a dummy and touched down for Ripon’s eighth Try. Bray’s Conversion took the score to its final resting place of 50 – 12. The final few moments of the game played out with Ripon maintaining possession efficiently until the last whistle.
An emphatic five-league-point win at home, what more could the club want? Some further attention to detail when in possession and some fine tuning in defence – mere trifles for this squad and their coaches. Nearly there but not quite yet, so plenty to do in the training paddock as ever, but overall an exciting performance from an exciting squad.
Next Saturday 3rd February, Ripon 1st XV are back on the road again and visiting Ossett for the first time in many years. The kick off will be at 2.15, all travelling supporters very welcome.