Playing our local rivals is always a momentous occasion. Accordingly, our guests from Clifton had fielded a team ready for a game of 7s: no less than 9 Fijians on the team sheet! Trees could rightfully expect York’s speedy back line to look for space on the outside and try to ship the ball wide. To counter that, the hosts would have to dig deep, and pay particular attention to ball conservation, as the merest mistake was likely to cost dearly. York had sadly travelled without a complete front row, which took away one of Trees’ main weapons: the scrum – looked almost as though our visitors were willing to do every trick in the book to win. The weather remained dry for the entire afternoon, and whilst the wind was blowing, it was calmer than it had been these past few weeks.
Trees kicked off, and almost immediately, York’s Fijian contingent did what was expected: run towards the outside, contact, offload, more passes (flat or forwardish, but that is the South Pacific way I suppose), and a sprint down the field to score between the post: a series of individual feats, which, if they are entertaining to watch, are more akin to athletics than to rugby. Long story short, York scored a converted try in the first minute of the game (0-7). For Rowntree, the plan was to keep their cool, and oppose collective effort and well-organised phase play against the visitors’ collection of individual runs. And it quickly paid off: patiently inching towards the opponents’ 22-metre line, Rowntree gained an interesting scrum 10 metres away from the guests’ try line. The stationary uncontested scrum did not prevent Rowntree’s skipper Ryan Roodt, officiating at no. 8, from bolting out of the back of said scrum, and score one of his trademark tries: shrug off a few defenders and prance as elegantly as a cannonball to cross the whitewash (5-7). York Fijians responded with more of the same: speed up towards the outside, break the line, and score under the post. At 5-14, with no need to panic, the hosts once more focused on their collective game, keeping hold of the ball, despite many, many hands in rucks. Logical penalties for Trees followed, and outside centre Alistair O’Gara found a dainty touch 15 metres away from York’s try line. A well-negotiated maul ensued, and despite the defence’s best efforts, the testudo-formed pack ploughed forth, with hooker Ryan Corker patiently biding his time, ball firmly anchored under his arm, until he could touch down (10-14). Convinced that the key to the victory would be played around break-downs, Trees ceaselessly pestered ruck guards, refusing to engage with anyone more than 10 metres away from a ruck. Support play was optimal, and the ball was kept out of York’s hands. During an incursion in the visitors’ 22s, after a few strong carries courtesy of the likes of George Churchill, Chris Reeves, and Leo Ballantyne, fly-half John Hatton side-stepped back towards the pack, and nimbly evading the opposing half-backs, dived under the last two defenders to score Rowntree’s third try of the afternoon (15-14). In the operation, the two unfortunate defenders, seeking to stop the elusive Hatton, managed to bash their heads against each other, which meant game over for them. Having weathered the storm, the guests decided to attack again, and scored two break-away tries, one off a lucky intercepted ball, and the other one – guess what? – playing swiftly on the outside and scoring under the post (15-28). The official blew his whistle for half-time, and both team went to wet theirs.
Although the day’s oranges were not to Kens Gayle’s liking (quite fussy, are we?), the latter was nonetheless re-energised after York kicked off for the second half: the locals’ flanker showcased his tackling work and proposed a few strong carries, which contributed to immense push shown by every Trees player this afternoon. The hard graft performed collectively, be it carrying the ball, communicating in defence, or rucking savagely, put the hosts in a favourable position in the opposition’s half. If York drew their strength from their Oceanic back line, Rowntree used the forwards to keep the forward momentum going: a few minutes after the beginning of the second half, phase after phase, the pack sucked in a brave defence, as the try line inched closer, and, with an ultimate carry, skipper Roodt crashed over the line, a try converted by our kicker du jour, Ali O’Gara (22-28). And back to it they went: with commendable discipline and support, wingers like Conor Chubbs (for his début with us) and Daniel Mahlaulo, as well as the incisive Mark Thomas in full-back, charged down the field, showing that they too had a few tricks up their socks, and gained ground. (Speaking of incisors, how is your lip, Tommo?) Back again in the visitors’ half, the forward pack reacted well off a line-out: eschewing the costumary maul, second row Tom Eaton fearlessly charged down and, despite a blow to the head, managed to touch the ball down (27-28). Seeing the hosts barely one point behind, York sought to sharpen their attacks, and again used their speed to quickly carry the danger in Rowntree’s half. Heroic in defence, the locals pushed back the Oceanic waves several times, before a breach was found (27-35). With ten minutes to play, and the need to score twice to gain the upper hand, the local team rallied up, and in one of their greatest displays of solidarity this season, pushed forward with what remained of their stamina. The meagre bench got busy: Marc Ford, brought aggression and grit to the pack, whilst Ben Tunningley provided agility and plenty of useful talk as a full-back. To make matters slightly more complicated, Rowntree’s lively fly-half had to leave the field after a hapless head injury. As it turns out, it was an inside job, albeit unintenional, but nonetheless, since the top of my occiput proved sturdier than Hatton’s temple, the latter had to be clapped off the pitch. Consequently, the team’s factotum, Zak Hardy relocated to inside centre (to his delight) whilst Mark Thomas occupied the no. 10 spot, which still made for a not too shabby back line, I think. After these adjustments, Rowntree set off again: with an air of déjà vu, pardon my French, Captain Roodt sprang out from behind a scrum, and scored a well-deserved coup du chapeau (34-35). As exciting as this hat trick was, things were not over, and with Trees a point behind, but against a spirited defence, the end of the match was surely going to give thrills to the spectators. A colossal collective effort saw the locals once more occupy York’s half: props Conor Lynch-Smith and Marc Ford broke the gain line several times, until a penalty was awarded for an nth foul on the ground. A quick tap, which gave skipper Roodt a small heart attack, whilst the indispensable Ali O’Gara propelled yours truly onward, (who said that backs can’t play like forwards every now and again?), Trees scored the last try of the afternoon, which gave the local boys the lead (39-35). In a last-ditch effort, York attacked with all they had, but a well-establishe defence kept the visitors at bay. With a minute to play, O’Gara, encore lui, scored a liberating penalty, which gave the hosts some relative security, with a 7-point lead (42-35). A few phases later, Hardy, having heard the ref’s calling the last play, clamoured for the ball, and hoofed it off the pitch, concluding the afternoon’s thoroughly-enjoyed festivities. As Lynch-Smith said after the game, “Today was a triumph of structure and team play over individual talent.” Nothing further to add.
Next wek sees the League resume, with a trip to Thirsk, with hopes to keep this promissing momentum going. Kick off at 15:00, come one, come all!
Tries: R. Roodt (3); R. Corker; J. Hatton; T. Eaton; R. Cames.
Conversions: A. O’Gara (2).
Penalty: A. O’Gara.
Squad: G. Churchill; R. Corker; C. Lynch-Smith; T. Eaton; C. Reeves; L. Ballantyne; K. Gayle; R. Roodt (C); R. Cames; J. Hatton; C. Chubbs; Z. Hardy; A. O’Gara; D. Mahlaulo; M. Thomas.
Finishers: M. Ford; B. Tunningley.