Confessions of a Rugby Amateur

Confessions of a Rugby Amateur

Friday, 27 April 2012

Swan song ends in swan dive

'And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain...'  - Frank Sinatra

WARNING: This post may contain generous helpings of self-absorbed introspection...well more than usual anyway!

The Tring Rangers wrapped up our most successful National 3 league season with the brutal 111-7 route of already relegated Havant. It was a merciless way to send down a once great club but also a great way for me to sign off in my last game at Fortress Cow Lane.

The last few weeks of a season are always tough. There is an 'end of term' atmosphere and it is difficult to get any real focus in training sessions. Players are usually held together by tape at this point, desperate to see out the long campaign. One eye is on a summer of DIY and Saturday shopping trips. A few practice cover drives or right arm seam actions can often be seen as well. But John was keen to reign this in and focus on finishing the season with a bang.

The match at Dorking had been extremely disappointing. Bar two errors, we had been supreme in the first half only to be physically dominated in the second. However, we knew Havant would be a different prospect. The Hampshire club had struggled all season and, without meaning to sound too arrogant, we knew it was a case of 'how much' rather than 'if'. But few would have expected the final score.

It took 10 minutes for the floodgates to open. We looked sharp and focused but still bombed a few early chances. However, once Tommy Newton touched down for the first score, our nerves settled and we finished our chances with finesse and aplomb. A Hat Trick for the Mateai Express, and scores from Papa Bear Lamden and Marlen Walker pushed the score well out of reach. A late rally from the visitors lead to a surprise score from Winger Duke but a 43-7 half time score meant the game was safely out of reach.

And then the screw was turned in the second half. Havant's fitness and heart had been broken and we were in no mood for pity. Further scores from Papa, Radders, Tommy, Claps and Scott Browne pushed the score out to 78-7 after just 53 minutes. In truth, I wish I could give more detail on these tries but there were just too many to recall. 

At this point, I was starting to panic. I had still not scored yet and the Naked Mile at the end of season Players' Dinner was looming large in my mind. I was desperately running the best support lines my legs would allow but with little to no tackling, no one was giving up the ball. 

And then, like a prayer answered, Ben Criddle burst through on the right wing. He passed inside to Tommy Newton. As he reached the 22, I screamed almost pleadingly for the ball. He drew the Full-back, popped inside for a glorious trott under the posts and a totally unnecessary, Ashton-esque swan dive!   

But we weren't finished there. More scores from Tommy, Wills, Criddler and JP poaching Cap'n Morgan's certain try meant a final score of 111-7. The highest score in the league that year. They even let me take the final conversion!

So that was it. The end of the most successful season Tring has had and my last appearance at Fortress Cow Lane. Seventh in the league with 13 wins is a fantastic achievement but I think we all recognise a few messy games after Christmas cost us a higher position. 

And what about me? Well, I suffered a lot of abuse on Saturday night from people saying I'm retiring too early! But I feel the time is right. To be honest, it could be more of a sabbatical than a full retirement. In a year's time, or when the Baby is a bit older, I'd like to come back and play at a more social level or maybe do some coaching. But I won't be able to commit to the extra fitness and gym work needed to compete at this level.

I feel I have had my best season for a number of years - possibly ever. My defence has been much improved and I have made more tackles and forced more turnovers than ever. However, I set myself the goal of making the County squad this year which I have failed to do. Ultimately, I did not perform well enough in key matches this year to catch the eye (Bishop Stortford away, Ampthill away, and Bracknell away). Also, one try a season is not an adequate return for a Number 8.
The next generation of Tring Ranger!
That said, it has been a wonderful journey. From my first days in the Centres at Under 12 to now, I have loved every minute. Stand out moments for me have been the win away at Jersey - now a Championship side - the 6-3 thriller in a hurricane at Chingford to secure promotion, and wins home and away against local rivals Bishop Stortford. 

I'll miss the boozy bus trips, the unwavering support both home and away, and, most of all, the unrivalled camaraderie in the changing room. We haven't got the biggest or most talented squad but we are successful because we play for each other.

The most exciting news is that I am expecting a son in September so the next generation of Tring Ranger is already on the way! 

Now...enough of this self-indulgence. Next Sunday sees us compete for the Herts County Cup against Hertford and it would be great to sign off with some silverware.

'...the record shows I took the blows and did it my way!'

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Dorking punish weak scrum

We had hoped for an unbeaten run at the end of the season. We had hoped for our first win over Dorking in three years. We had hoped for a lot of things...unfortunately, it was an all too familiar story. An 'encouraging' and 'passionate' performance, inevitably let down by a more dominant forward pack and a handful of errors. 

The convincing win against Gravesend had pleased everyone. We had stuck to our new gameplan and produced a physical and professional performance. Despite an Easter break, we were confident we could keep the momentum going and win our last three league games and secure 6th spot. 

Before the weekend, we had not beaten the Surrey side in five attempts. Previous clashes with Dorking had been hard-fought, entertaining and had generally produced an excellent standard of Rugby. So we were all looking forward to the match.

We started extremely well. We were patient but clinical at the breakdown and, most importantly, we looked merciless out wide. The Backs were very much in the mood. Young Beeny continued his good form at Scrum-half and the Centre partnership of JP and Papa Bear Lamden were a constant handful. The pressure told on 14 minutes. Fly-half Scott Browne waltzed through a gaping hole and off loaded the Tommy Newton to touch down.

A couple of penalties extended our lead but it was our mistakes that let the home side back in. Browne was caught in position and Dorking punished us with a try from Scum-half Crow. Undeterred, we continued to press our dominance but again a simple mistake lead to a score for prolific Winger Terelak.

However, just as the tables were starting to turn, stunning hands from the Backline lead to a quite brilliant score for Browne. Papa Bear's bootstrap catch and flick was worth the entrance fee alone. So we finished the half 23-12. An impressive lead and a potential scalp on the cards.

But then the tables really did turn...with brutal efficiency. The pitch itself had a fairly pronounced slope. We didn't notice it too much at first but playing uphill against a rejuvenated opposition was an entirely different prospect. Dorking started with blistering speed, keen to make up for early mistakes and a flowing move down the left lead to an easy score for Full-back Tyler. 

The scrum had struggled all day and the labour was intensified by the slope. A scrum on our five metre line lead to a humiliating and all-to-easy push over try, which was jubilantly celebrated. 

The cracks in our game had been prized open into fissures and there was no stopping Dorking. A number of penalties and a further try from Number 8-turned-Winger Lucas meant a final score of 40-23. 28 unanswered points in the second half left a bitter taste in our mouths.

It boils down to the ultimate sporting cliche...a game of two halves. The first: probably the best half we have ever played. We were excellent at the breakdown, securing quick ball for a pumped up Backline to work their very best magic. The second: Dorking, buoyed by a couple of gifted tries, closed out the game efficiently. But it was through no lack of effort or passion - more a loss of shape on our behalf.

6th place looks beyond our grasp unless we can pull off a cricket score against Havant and Luton can shock Civil Service. All-in-all we are hoping to get over the disappointment and finish the season on a high.

And so there are just two games left of the season. Havant at home and then Hertford in the County Cup Final. Two games left of what has been such a promising season. And just two games left of my Rugby career.

Yes, I am still planning to hang my boots up on 29 April (give or take a couple of Sevens tournaments in the Summer). It will be something of an emotional game on Saturday as I run out in front of the Step End faithful for the last time. With the baby due in September, I won't have the time to commit to the extra training, fitness and gym work needed to succeed at this level - I barely have now let alone with a screaming Rugrat in tow! It will be tough to stop altogether and I may be in a position to re-evaluate after Christmas but in the short-term at least I will be swapping muddy kit for pooey nappies!

I am hoping for a big end-of-season crowd at Fortress Cow Lane but I fear the weather may have something to say about that. Let's hope I cross the line on Saturday to avoid the embarrassment of finishing my career with the Naked Mile!

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Agony and Ecstasy of National 3 Rugby

Now, I know all the age-old adages - sour grapes, bad worksmen blame their tools, throwing toys out of the pram, et al - but sometimes the sheer chasmic differences in refereeing ability in this league is truly mind blowing.

Exhibit A took place on 24 March away at Westcliff. In truth, it was a free-flowing, fast-paced, action-packed classic and must have been fantastic for the supporters. But it was marred by any number of truly baffling decisions by the man in the middle.

And before you all cry out, I know they have a tough time. I know are giving up their weekend. I know the Game wouldn't go on without them...but when they give totally inexplicable decisions or doesn't award the glaringly obvious, it is difficult to remain calm.

It was a truly glorious day. Not a cloud in the sky, late teens degree-wise and impressive pitch and clubhouse facilities. Despite an initial period of thumb-twiddling due to early arrival, we were focused on the job in hand. 

But our ambitions were dashed within five minutes. The ball squirted straight out of a scrum but no whistle came and Westcliff took advantage with a neat grubber through to touch down and take the lead. We were guilty of not playing to the whistle but it was so painfully obvious that their pack were expecting a reset scrum as well. 

We fought back immediately, reclaiming the restart and forcing a lineout on their line. A well executed catch and drive lead to a first score of the season for Jamie 'Boycey' Brown. Our lineout has been solid all season but surprisingly this was the first try we had scored since Havant.

The home side took the lead again through impressive Number 8 Bryn Hudson. But we hit back straight away. Some excellent phase play and simple hands put in JP at the corner for a textbook score. A touchline conversion from Scott Browne squared the scores.

Further scores from Westcliff Winger O'Brien and an interception from Browne ended an entertaining half 21-21. But we had been hurt by inconsistent refereeing at the breakdown and a yellow card to Front Row Marlen Walker. 

It is maybe worth noting at this point that ini the recent England v Ireland match, the Irish scrum was under all kinds of pressure but not once was a yellow card given. This is because what happens in the Front Row is largely a mystery. So for our esteemed adjudicator to give a yellow card when we had an attacking scrum in the Westcliff 22 was again baffling. 

But by that stage he had turned against us. There was nothing we could do. Even breathing the wrong part of the pitch would have produced a penalty. An interception and a further try from Hudson lead to a final scoreline of 34-27 to the home side. 

Let's be clear here - Westcliff played fantastically well and deserved the victory. We had chances and didn't take them. But our confidence had been shattered. We didn't know what we could or couldn't do as the penalties seemed to be totally random. An encouraging performance and proof that the new system was starting to work but extremely frustrating. 
The bus home from Westcliff proved....eventful!
Exhibit B took place last weekend at home to Gravesend. We have enjoyed success against the Kent side in the past but we knew it would be diifficult as they had a narrow win against promotion chasing Tonbridge the week before.

But this was to be a Tring day. We were physical, fit, and fast but also controlled and intelligent. Playing our of Tring Corner in the first half, our defence was exemplary. We turned ball over and spread it wide quickly. We looked dangerous with the ball in hand, Papa Bear Lambden continued his good form, The Mateai Express was a handful and last minute replacement Beeny proved a livewire at Scrum-Half.

We bombed some excellent chances but restricted the score to 12-3 at half time. We had laid the foundations and could tell our wide play was tiring their pack already. We did not let off in the second half and could sense a special performance if we stuck to our guns.

There was a confidence and self belief flowing through the team which we haven't experienced since before Christmas. As we thought, the holes started to appear in the second half. Patient but relentless build up play ended with Ben Criddle scything through the defence to cross over for our first score. 

As their Back Row started to fade, I was given more freedom from the back of the scrum to gain yards. A break down the blindside eventually ended in the merciless hands of Mateai who bullocked his way through five defenders to touch down in the corner. 

Another score from Mataei was followed up with a flowing move straight from the kick off.  Ben Criddle was gifted a simple run in to secure a valuable home win - 28-17. It was an excellent, morale-boosting win and puts us level on points with 6th placed Civil Service. 

But the most remarkable thing about the game was that we barely noticed the referee. He was by far the best we had had all year. He let the Game ebb and flow naturally. He was clear and concise in his instructions and (shock horror) even let both teams compete for the ball at the breakdown! 

Our next Game is away at Dorking. The Surrey side's season seems to have come off the rails as well - they were put to the sword by Tonbridge last week. But they are strong at home and our Games are always close. 

Please can we have the same ref as last week though!