Blackheath 27 Wharfedale 24
We are always assured of the warmest of welcomes at this most venerable of clubs both on and off the field. Plenty of sumptuous hospitality; an immaculate playing surface (at least at this time of year before the monsoons hit); a raucous hearty partisan crowd – but on the pitch a bit of a graveyard over the years despite a fine showing on our last visit there.
And this time round it was in the end another case of so near but yet so far, with Blackheath’s forward prowess close to the line just getting them home in the face of some periods of sumptuous running from the Greens which they couldn’t quite translate in to hard scoring currency.
In some ways the opening minutes of this match summed up Wharfedale’s problem and much of their early sun-lit south-east London afternoon. Blackheath, pressing through their powerful well-drilled pack, force a fourth-minute slot at goal. The ball rebounds off the upright. Phil Woodhead collects, pirouettes out of defence an in a moment of lightening acceleration and streaks off up field. Andy Hodgson is at hand, passes to Rob Baldwin who powers thirty yards forward into the home 22, finds support outside him – only for Hodgson’s final interchange with winger Simon Horsfall to go astray at the line. Wonderful creative play – leading to exactly nowt.
Both teams had started the match having lost three of their four opening fixtures, (the Club, like Wharfedale at Macclesfield and Fylde, facing top notch opposition in Ealing and Jersey) with both teams too seemingly adroit at tossing victory to their opponents in the final minutes. A year ago at the Rectory field Wharfedale were denied victory the when a final-minute conversion hit the upright. On Saturday they had to be content yet again with a losing bonus point after a late rate rally just failed to wrest the game back from the home side.
Had the Greens capitalised more clinically on their fine creative first half-play they might well have sealed the match themselves by half-time. Blackheath are one of the few sides in the League who leave space between the two three-quarter lines. Time and again Wharfedale were tearing through in midfield, but a series of excellent line breaks either lacked close enough support or failed through a mixture of shoddy final pass and poor winger alignment. Instead ironically it was Blackheath who had clocked up a healthy 20-9 at the break with three well-taken tries to none with the Greens garnering only a trio of Tom Barrett penalties for their lavish time spent camped hammering away at the home line.
Club No8 James Catt collected the opening try with the pick-up from the back of a five-yard scrum, converted by Adam Armstrong. Catt was the instigator of the second as well when he freed winger Richard Bright on a tight blindside finish again from another close scrum with the defence caught dead on the defending left – scores which clearly underlined the primary set-piece strength of the Blackheath game. But the home side were still under siege having conceded 12 penalties in the first half-hour, most of for failing to roll away at tackles near their line culminating in yellow card for scrum-half Jack Walsh. But with Wharfedale once more on the attack Hodgson’s pass ricocheted pass off Joel Gill’s shoulder and rebounded in Bright’s path allowing him to hack clear and chase for a seventy-yard breakaway score.
After the break Wharfedale made light of a yellow card to scrum-half Phil Woodhead and a string of disruptive injuries, first to Joe Quinn, then Gill and finally Adam Whaites. But the second half looked to be belonging to the home side as they tightened their game, played from in front and added a bonus point fourth try when reinstated scrum-half Jack Walsh stretched over the line to score from a tap penalty to give his side a 27-12 lead on the hour.
But a stirring final rally by Wharfedale, whose forwards had played themselves to a virtual standstill in combating the Blackheath fire-power up front, at last produced tries. First Barrett took alert opportunist advantage of a loose ball 40 yards out with a neat collection of his own chip forward to score but loosely miss the consequent conversion. A further penalty which would have put the Greens in bonus-point range also went wide and it was left to Dan Solomi yet again to produce his scoring rescue act with a trademark burst from the ruck and with his fastest scuttle yet left the defence for dead. The No7 now averages an invaluable try a game so far this season. Barrett’s conversion left Wharfedale three points adrift – enough to force Blackheath to weather a nervous finish but not deprive them of a hard-earned win.
Much as the Greens may rue their finishing frailty they can take heart from their much tighter confident performance throughout this game. The tackling work of the forwards was immense with Aaron Myers and Solomi tireless throughout and Skipper Baldwin a towering presence wherever the battle was at its most fierce. There was pace and inventiveness behind with Gill and Woodhead both showing up well.
So though the London visit was then not without its positives it will, however, be tinged with sadness at the unfortunate ligament injury to Adam Whaites which will require surgery that puts on hold his courageous comeback to the side. We wish him well with his recovery.
WHARFEDALE: A Whaites (L Gray 52); D Hart, A Hodgson, J Gill (J Gough 62), S Horsfall; T Barrett, P Woodhead; A Mason (M Tampin 45), B Sowrey, C Steel; R Rhodes, J Quinn (R Brown 45) A Myers, D Solomi, R Baldwin.
BLACKHEATH: A Armstrong; R Bright, S Moan, R Lank shear, J Stephenson; S Windsor, J Walsh; S Legg, G O’Meara, D Brett; T Bason, A Vanner; N Dewale, D Allen, J Catt
REFEREE Matt Carley (RFU)