Half-way through the second period of this thrilling match, with the scoreboard standing at 42-7, the Wharfedale faithful knew that their team was staring down the barrel of a third successive heavy defeat, and another empty-handed return from the capital city.
Not that their team’s performance had been without its encouraging aspects: they had had the balance of the territory, but without ever threatening to pierce the home side’s defences. On the other hand, Rosslyn Park’s grateful acceptance of frequent turnovers gave them ample opportunity for the counterattack, which they accepted gratefully, scoring tries from all over Roehampton. Nor had the Greens been able to depend on their set piece: there was a fragility about their lineout, and problems in the scrummage department were never better illustrated than when they were driven backwards off their own ball inside the home 22, to concede another long-distance try to the speedy Rosslyn Park backs.
By half-time the home side, with debutant 18-year-old London Irish fullback Cameron Cowell creating havoc, had scored four tries though their excellent captain and number 8 Hugo Ellis (2), centre Kiba Richards and winger Adam Field, and had another disallowed. Early in the second half Field’s second was augmented by a penalty try and the match as a contest was over.
A little luck would have helped, however: as Wharfedale fought to get back into the first half, Luke Stevenson had the ball ripped from him in the act of scoring, and later Chris Howick was beaten to the touchdown by a millimetre.
But as the match moved into its fourth quarter it all changed. Last season’s captain Chris Steel, coming off the bench for his first appearance of the season following surgery, was warming to the task and the whole team began to play with purpose: handling errors were eliminated, and they began to benefit from refereeing decisions which in the first half might have gone against them.
In a repeat of Richard Rhodes’s try at the end of the first half – Wharfedale’s eventual and sole response to a 28-0 deficit – a penalty kick to the corner was followed by a successful lineout and the score was awarded to Josh Burridge, celebrating his 20th birthday with his best performance of the season.
Now playing with fire and aggression, it was Matt Van Sertima who made a break through the centre (the only clean break made by his side in the whole match) to set up another penalty kick to the corner and a second try for Rhodes from the driven maul. Although the match was already out of sight at 42-19, Wharfedale’s three tries, with ten minutes still on the clock, had brought them to within sight of an unlikely bonus point.
It didn’t seem to matter that Rosslyn Park now scored again, flanker Harries finishing another try under the posts which would have been prevented by more robust tackling: Wharfedale’s minds were on other matters, and their march upfield, aided by several penalty awards, brought them to the very brink of the cherished fourth try.
An attacking lineout missed its target but found Jim Mason, who powered over the line only to be held up. With one minute left on the clock, a home flanker was yellow-carded for side-entry, and with no time left for lineouts Wharfedale elected to scrummage against the weakened home pack: Park were penalised for dropping a retreating scrum, but referee Tom Davis awarded only another penalty. Wharfedale had no choice but to scrummage again, but this time its collapse brought the penalty try and the bonus point which the team had worked so hard to earn.
After the match coach Jon Feeley was pensive: clearly disappointed with the profligacy of his charges in the first half, he was impressed by the way they had fought their way back into the match. He had particularly warm words for the birthday boy Burridge, who despite his youth is the senior member of the back row in terms of league appearances.
That said, Wharfedale’s set piece is a work in progress, with too many lineouts going astray, and the scrummage liable to buckle on occasions with disastrous consequences. An inability to penetrate behind the scrum may not be easy to remedy, but the backs’ discipline in maintaining their defensive formation and the whole team’s occasionally suspect one-on-one tackling will surely be on the midweek agenda as the club prepares for its next three matches against sides in the bottom half of the division.
Wharfedale: Scott Jordan; Josh Prell, Matt Van Sertima, Tom Davidson, Oliver Cicognini; Luke Stevenson, James Doherty (c); Matt Beesley, Ian Larkin, Jake Armstrong, Adam Howard, Richard Rhodes, Tom Burridge, Chris Howick, Josh Burridge. Replacements: Chris Steel, Dan Stockdale, Simon Willet, Jim Mason, Philip Woodhead.