Wharfedale headed for Brantingham Park on the back of a run of seven successive league defeats and propping up the National One table from bottom spot. With the season not yet half over, pre-match talk of a ‘must-win’ fixture might have been a tad premature, but not by much.
The vastly improved spirited performance the previous week against Plymouth Albion had offered hope of a turn-round in the team’s fortunes. From an inauspicious start the much-needed, thoroughly deserved, victory was achieved, albeit by the narrowest of margins and after the survival of a dramatic and agonisingly tense finale that stretched the nerves of the Green’s supporters to breaking point.
The first half belonged mostly to Ionians with their powerful pack making life very difficult for the visitors in the set pieces. They capitalised on territorial ascendancy and pressure with two tries within five mid-half minutes. First winger Aquile Smith finished off a defence-stretching move in the right corner then lock Joe Makin took the honours on behalf of the pack after a smooth push-over.
Scrum-half Isaac Green added a penalty and a penalty and might have had further chances had skipper Makin not persistently opted for penalties to touch. The Greens repeatedly dug deep to thwart threatening drives by the home forwards.
Wharfedale doggedly maintained a foothold in the game thanks to two James Guy penalties. Overall, they must have been happy to be just 15-6 in arrears at the break, particularly since they had to play out the closing stages without the services of sin-binned number 8 Rob Baldwin.
The second half was a very different story. Baldwin’s absence was concluded with no defensive alarms, and the Greens went on to dominate quite 90% of the proceedings. By the 63rd minute they had clawed their way to a 16-15 lead.
Having been a clear second-best in first-half scrums and mauls, the Wharfedale forwards now had near-parity in those areas. But it was their tenacious fluency at pick-and-drive, gaining territory, retaining possession and concurrently wearing down their opponents, that really turned the balance of the game in the Greens’ favour.
It was a concerted period of forward pressure that finally opened up the home defence for centre Cameron Hudson to mark his return to the side after injury by crashing over for a jubilantly received try in the 52nd minute. Guy converted and the stand-off then added what turned out to be a crucial 35-metre penalty.
The Dalesmen retained the bulk of possession during the tense closing stages and seemed the more likely to add to their score. However, Ionians were desperately close to a winning try with 4 minutes remaining. Sam Wilson, in the act of crossing the line, succumbed to a thunderous tackle by the Green’s full-back Maxime Labasse, the impact causing the winger to spill the ball.
That scare survived, Wharfedale looked to be seeing out the final minute in relative comfort, but at the last gasp, in the concluding passage of play, there came a potentially heart-breaking twist.
Ionians secured the ball on the 10-metre line and mauled forward with sufficient threat to lure the backtracking Greens into conceding a penalty in a very kickable position. It would be the final action of the match. With Isaac Green having been substituted it was down to replacement stand-off James Ferguson to determine victory and defeat with his sole shot at the posts. Amid a breathless atmosphere and in complete silence, Ferguson measured his kick. His strike had the height, and the distance, but the ball floated narrowly wide of the right post, sparking ecstatic celebrations in the Greens’ camp.
Coach Tom McGee commented: –
“I thought from the off, we approached this game in the right manner, with the right attitude and were fantastic.
I challenged the guys before the game to bring a great attitude, to stay positive, to do what we need to find a way through the tough patches. That sounds pretty obvious but when you’re on the back of seven losses confidence is low and it’s a real mental challenge to turn it around.
It’s incredible, we’re ravaged with injuries, another four players out this week, so we went into this game with no less than 21 1st team squad players injured or unavailable. So really, in the current circumstances and with the weather of late, our attitude and how we’ve been going about things has been great. We’ve not been far off. It’s not what you do when things are going well and you’re sailing, what epitomises a group, a team, a club, is what you do when things aren’t going well, what you do about it, and how you pull together to climb through.
We shouldn’t have won this game. Their pack size and weight advantage along with the weather conditions all fell heavily against us. But credit to our guys, we knew some facets were going to be tough, but we stood toe to toe all afternoon. Our energy and enthusiasm was good. Our second half kick chase and fringe work gave us the win.
Phil Woodhead was immense. His first game back after only 2 weeks training, playing 80 mins has to be applauded, not just getting through 80mins of rugby, but the way he played and the courage he showed, led us through. He was a real example to all. A mention to Will Bell and Will Davidson. Both had to pull out late this week with niggling set backs. Both were desperate to play.
Lastly we want to thank our support, their energy and the atmosphere they created really made a difference. At points it felt that we were the home team !
We’ve got one game left in 2015 against Fylde at home this week. We’ll be working our hardest to ensure we have a top training week and give the year a send-off with a win at home.”
Editor’s note: Normally my function is to simply tidy-up and post the match reports such as this one. However, in this instance, I would like to take this opportunity of suggesting, after hearing the views of various supporters, players etc that the (not actually in existence) man of the match award is given to Phillip Woodhead, not only for the reasons high-lighted by Tom above but also for the way in which he “advised and controlled” the players around him. Well done Woody and welcome back!
Wharfedale: M Labasse; M Van Sertima, C Hudson, H Morgan, O Fewtrell; J Guy, P Woodhead; M Beesley, S Graham (D Stockdale 69), A Wade (R Cano 60), G Hedgley, S Willett, A Powell, J Burridge (A Myers 73), R Baldwin.
Replacements not used: R Wellock and M Bell.
A selection of photographs is available under the Photos tab.