Confessions of a Rugby Amateur

Confessions of a Rugby Amateur

Friday, 27 January 2012

The Death of Running Rugby

"Silence the pianos and with muffled drum 
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come
...For running Rugby is dead" - W. H. Auden (paraphrased!)

Gone are those Halcyon days of solid pitches, Indian Summer temperatures and glorious running Rugby. Alas, the weather has changed. The rains have come, the mud has returned, and the ball has disappeared up jumpers.

This has been the mildest Winter since records began. No country-crippling snow drifts. No monsoon-style flooding. In fact, playing conditions have been excellent so far. However, the mere suggestion of moisture in the air or stick under foot has prompted the return of boring, 'pick-and-go', one out runner Rugby. We saw it at Ampthill, we were surprised to see it from Canterbury and we saw it from Civil Service last weekend.

In fairness, the conditions did dictate the game. It was a cold and blustery day at Cow Lane with the wind gusting straight down the pitch towards the infamous Tring Corner. We had beaten Civil comfortably at their place but we expected something of a battle. The Chiswick-based club were snapping at our heels in the league and had notched up some notable results.

We fought into the wind in the first half. Despite Scott Browne's banana trickshot, kicking from hand was largely out of the question. The aim of the game was to keep the ball and we did that extremely well. Yes, we did have to pick-and-go a lot but we also moved the ball were possible, causing some problems out wide as well as in the tight.

Civil's attack revolved heavily around their pack and their strong running Inside Centre Mitchell. But once, we covered these two areas, there was not much threat elsewhere. A dominant Front Row put us under pressure at scrum time but our lineouts were seamlessly effective. We won all our ball and constantly pressured theirs.

In a tense, physical first half, we had played some our most controlled and dominant rugby of the season. We couldn't convert pressure into points but we remained calm and composed. We were happy with the 3-3 half time scoreline because we had the wind and the slope still to come.

However, Civil hadn't read the script! Rather naively, we took our foot off the gas. Our defence worked hard around the breakdown but we simply couldn't get the ball. Civil picked and picked and picked, edging ever closer up the field. Our defence around the breakdown was solid but the one time Civil took it wide we went to sleep, and Outside Centre Wells sauntered over the line.

We tried desperately to get back in the game but Civil just wouldn't cough up the ball. We shot ourselves in the foot with some poor decisions when we finally did get possession. The one time we got it right lead to a score. A smartly executed move in the backs bamboozled the visitor's and Chennells crashed over in the corner.

But that was as good as we got. The final score was 10-8 to Civil. 

We were hugely disappointed. It was a dull, boring game which very rarely left the dark confines of the breakdown. We targeted this as a convincing Home win but our second half performance showed a worrying naivety and over-confidence. That's not taking anything away from Civil Service. They certainly deserved the win for a fantastically disciplined second half performance.
Liam touches down for the last minute score against Stortford earlier this season
That puts more pressure on this weekend. Away at Bishop Stortford. The Hertfordshire derby comes round again. We know they are on an impressive run, unbeaten in 11 games, including a comfortable win away at Tonbridge. No mean feat.

But there will be no naivety or over confidence this week. Training has been tough. A steely determination has returned to the squad. This isn't just another derby. If we win this, it will put us back in contention for a top four finish.

We're ready for war.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

New Year, new resolve

The New Year has started well for Tring. Strong and determined performances against league leaders Canterbury and another local derby against Luton have reinvigorated the team's confidence as we head into the second half of the season.

7 January was meant to be a day of firsts. The first league outing of the New Year. The first real exhibition of the fancy new electronic scoreboard. The first trip to Fortress Cow Lane for Canterbury. And the first loss of the season for the visitors...pity it didn't all go according to plan.

The two losses before Christmas had dented our Top Four ambitions. But we knew we had the talent and ability to cause Canterbury problems. We were missing some key figures through injury and illness but so were the visitors.

There was another first for us on the day - an Italian referee. A few eyebrows raised when he came in to check our studs - his jeans so tight you could tell his religion.

A bumper crowd packed The Step End and we did not disappoint. We started well, showing no fear or ounce of respect to the visitors. We matched they powerful pack with aggressive and relentless defence. Canterbury had to settle for an early penalty after wave-on-wave of fruitless attacks. 

In a bizarre turn straight from a Year 6 school match, the visitors gathered under their posts as we lined up a penalty. But Capt'n Morgan hadn't signalled for the posts, giving new recruit Scotty 'Too Hotty' Browne a free run to the line and the lead. 

Canterbury were not at their best, playing a tight, pick-and-go style rather than their usual free-flowing game. However, our discipline let us down. We gifted them points and field position and were punished accordingly. The score at half time was 23-7.

William Mateai makes a break against Canterbury
The second half was a different game once we understood more about the ref's style. Another impressive solo try and a penalty from Scotty Too Hotty put us within touching distance at 17-23 and we were firmly in the driving seat. 

We pushed hard in their 22 and were pressing for the score to take the lead. But unfortunately our well of good fortune had dried up. A hair's breadth from glory and ever-present Canterbury Number 8 Baars took a gamble and went for the interception. As he touched down to score at the other end, we could start to feel the game slip away.

Despite a late try by Marlen Walker, a further Baars try had put the game out of reach. It had been an excellent performance but we felt we deserved at least something from the game. No losing bonus point meant it was a lot of effort for no reward. 

The game against Luton was a very different beast. We approached the match with cautious optimism. Yes we had lost three on the bounce but the Canterbury game had restoked our fire. The only danger was letting the previous games' good work go to waste. It would need to be another big performance - nothing taken for granted.

And it appears nerves got the better of us initially. A mix up from the restart gifted them the possession. With our heads still spinning, the home side crashed over in the corner from a driven lineout. 

This was the wake up call we needed and our defensive wall rebuilt itself. Sure enough, once we rediscovered our basic phase play, Tommy Newton pulled the scores level. But our scrums were still an issue.

With a make-shift Second Row of Slates and Hixy, we lacked weight and struggled all day at scrum time. Our lighter pack proved more mobile and we were able to keep hold of possession but something wasn't quite clicking. Our execution was not of its usual standard and it wasn't until the end of the half when the pressure finally told. 

A scrum against the head was quickly spun wide and the Mateai Express crashed over in the corner. Our defensive strength also forced a score, Scotty Too Hotty scored from his own charge down to extend the lead to 18-5 at half time. 

Predictably, Luton stepped up their work rate in the second half. They held onto the ball for long periods of time but our defence held true - Papa Bear Lamden and JP in the Centres proved particularly miserly. The home side did pull one score back but their ill discipline cost them. 

Two yellow cards meant we were always in control. We left it late to secure the bonus point. I picked blind from a scrum in their 22 and just as the Scrum Half was about to bundle me into touch, a deft backhand flick gave Rob Baldwin a clear definitely wasn't a flukey, desperate,last ditch effort!

The win has set up an interesting few weeks. This is shaping up to be an exciting season which will hopefully come down to the wire. We are still very much in the hunt for that Top Four finish and Civil Service will be the first major test of our new resolve.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Disappointing December sparks fresh hopes for New Year

As an eventful 2011 drew to a close, Tring were given tough lessons in reality at the hands of Dorking and Ampthill. Two disappointing losses took the sheen off our impressive start to the season and meant we slumped to 6th from our nose-bleed high 3rd league position. 

Dorking at home was always going to be a tough ask. They came to Cow lane sparking with confidence after putting Tonbridge Juddians to the sword the week before. However, we had trained well and felt we could get a result. We have always enjoyed games against the Surrey club and believed the Home advantage would play into our hands.

Hearts were in mouths straight from the whistle. A fumbled kick off landed straight into the visitors hands who quickly moved it wide but were miraculously held up over the line by Josh Smith and Papa Bear Lambden. We were able to clear our lines and gain our composure.

And sure enough, our self-belief was rewarded soon after. A well worked move and patient build up play lead to an easy run in for Papa, strolling over the line following some effective phase play from the forwards. 

Dorking hit back and dominated much of the first half. Our defence was too eager and pressed too hard in the wrong areas. We lost our shape on a couple of occasions and were punished by an intelligent running backline. Full-back Ryan Jeffrey crossed the line twice from similar moves, making the most of our defensive naivety. 

The Game see-sawed back in our favour and two penalties from Liam Chennells clawed us back to 11-15. However, we couldn't keep control. In all too familiar circumstances, their backs capitalised on defensive lapses, this time Wing Hunt extended the lead to 11-20.
Chennells touches down against Dorking
Just when all looked dead, the Game swung back to us and we pushed hard for another last minute result. A try and conversion from Chennells certainly had the alarm bells ringing at 18-20. But it proved to be one Houdini act too many as Dorking calmly slotted a penalty to secure the win. 18-23 the final score and a losing bonus point to console ourselves with.

The following week's debacle at Ampthill was the opposite end of the Rugby spectrum. We were not expecting a free flowing spectacle of running Rugby. In fact, the few games we have played against them have been bad tempered wars of attrition and the 17 December was no exception.

There is never a good time to play Ampthill - there are a brutish team of Lord of the Rings extras. But you definitely don't want to take on the Bedfordshire side on their own turf with an Arctic wind howling and the pitch rather fittingly resembling the Somme. The Rugby Gods were not shining down on us.

The game was savage and brutal as we predicted and we were under the cosh from the start. The home side took advantage of the slope to pound wave after wave of heavy running forwards, like heavy artillery. Our scrum twisted and buckled but our defence in the loose was resolute. And with mutant Second-row Lewis inevitably in the sin bin, we pulled the score level at 6-6. 

Unfortunately, despite some excellent opportunities, we failed to capitalise on the man advantage. Our driving line outs were hugely effective and our backs were far superior but we couldn't turn possession into points. And, sure enough, Ampthill's own solid set piece provided the platform for Back-row Burke to cross on the stroke of half time.

The second half was a depressing affair. Our relentless defence had taken its toll and we couldn't muster the clinical edge to best utilise the slope. As we pushed the Game, we made crucial errors and gifted the home side a number of tries in the dieing moments. The final score, a spirit-crushing 33-6.

I have never felt so battered after a Game and I was still feeling the effects a full week after. It was a very disappointing way to finish an otherwise excellent year and we have had the whole Christmas break to sweat and stew about it. 
Our fancy new scoreboard!
We have always done well in the second half of the season and have put together strong end-of-season runs. The boys are definitely looking forward to getting stuck into 2012...although it would be nice if the weather calmed down a little!

Santa has been to Cow Lane as well. A shiny new digital scoreboard will be officially unveiled on Saturday against league leaders Canterbury...hopefully it will make for good reading!