This was Macclesfield’s first outing as league leaders this season, and they were keen to consolidate their position at the top, while avoiding a potential banana skin in the North West. Carlisle were sat in the bottom half and took a bit of a pasting from Macc back in October 55-22 but they are very dangerous at home. As it turned out, saying Macclesfield were given a scare may be going a fraction far, but they certainly had to scrap-this-one-out in a performance that was more ‘mature’ than it was pretty.
The conditions in the North West were less than ideal. A strong wind blowing straight down the pitch as Storm Ciara was bearing down on the UK, it made for some interesting restarts, including the opening drop out which fell kindly for the visitors who immediately went on the offensive and enjoyed a positive opening spell, but it went unrewarded. It was a scrappy opening by both sides but Carlisle struck first with a sustained period of possession – full back Grant Connon making a nice outside break out on the left, on half way, and propelled by the tail wind finished well on 5 mins (5-0 conv. missed).
Macc, in their away white ‘impact’ kit, hit back immediately, having won a series of phase plays and set piece penalties to move up the pitch, put to the corner and a maul laying the platform for a well worked backs move that saw young full back Will Davies scythe through the drifting defensive line and convert his own score on 11 minutes (5-7).
The Cheshire outfit were inspired, and their second score was a reminiscent of a 1980’s French “Jouer- Jouer” style score. Building the phases from deep, due to the heavy head wind, number 8 Dafydd Rees managed to break through the line of an inside ball and made 2 offloads during the course of the resulting move as the break was well supported with Simpson also having vital touches before winger Myles Hall was presented with the last pass to score in the corner. Davies put the cherry-on-the-cake by converting, and the travelling support must have thought that the result would be a formality from there (5-14 after 15 mins).
Those thoughts were short- lived, as Carlisle came back at their opponents with ferocity. Their large pack forced space and penalties putting them into the red zone. Macc were defending resolutely but not staying on the right side of the referee, and this allowed the Cumbrians the opportunity to maul over twice before the half hour point, re-taking the lead 17-14 through tries from Parish and Holmes.
Matters weren’t helped by the forced removal of flanker James Oliver who appeared to suffer a nasty leg injury and was stretchered from the field, replaced by the ever energetic Phil Laing.
Macclesfield appeared to be stung by this and put a sustained period of phase play pressure together, after claiming the kick off, and some very efficient handling saw Hall step his man on the outside down the left touch line and offload to Stelmazsek who was presented with the simplest of finishes, amusingly giving the ‘Ssshhhhhh’ celebration having been involved in a bit of niggle with the home pack (17-19 at the break).
The men in white manufactured one more opportunity before being turned over 10m out, signalling the end of the first half. Head Coach Andy Appleyard would have bitten your hand off for a 2 point lead playing into the wind if he had been offered it before the game and now his men could set about extending that lead with the 25-35 mph gales behind them.
It didn’t take long for the Priory Park side to add to their account, again building phases before Dafydd Rees came in on a flat line off Tom Morton to cut through the flailing defence and score under the posts on 44 minutes (17-26), his 2nd in 2 games.
Back came the home team, who peppered the Macc line and scrum, after a number of personnel changes, and enjoyed a long period in the red zone but made multiple handling errors under strong defensive pressure which yielded their chances.
The Cheshire outfit were not making such mistakes. Stelmaszek made it a brace on 67 minutes when the pack forced a mistake out of the home sides number 8 and 9, pouncing on the loose ball and finishing from 10m out unopposed making it 17-33.
With the strong breeze at their backs and a healthy lead in their pockets, step up Captain and fly half Tom Morton who, once again managed the game brilliantly with his right boot, pegging ‘lisle back in their own ’22.
Carlisle were forced to try and play from their own line as they chased a try bonus point but due to a committed Macc defence, very little ground was gained and it wasn’t long before the ball was coughed up, spread to Myles Hall who finished well in the corner to make the 5 points secure on 72 minutes (17-40).
The home side were beaten but were not discouraged from going out on a high, scoring 2 quick-fire tries through outside centre Israel and found themselves chasing a second bonus point in the dying stages, but after a temporary lack of concentration and infused with energy by the impact subs, Macc re-focused and defended like lions to the death, showing excellent commitment, even after the points were safe to keep their opponents out.
So the banana-skin was avoided, despite Carlisle showing great attacking prowess, and their fans in the stands were saying that was among their best displays of the season at home, they just lacked the quality of defence that the table-toppers brought to the party. Indeed this was a game where Macc needed the 5 points more than a performance, and they will enjoy ‘prettier’ displays in weeks to come, but this was a day for gritting-it-out, winning through solid defence at key times in testing conditions, despite letting their foot off the gas a couple of times.
Head Coach Andy Appleyard was pleased with the display: ‘It’s a long way to come and Carlisle are beast at home, so we are chuffed to come out with a bonus point win with 40 on the board. There are areas of our game we will need to assess, but Sandal next week will be a different animal…”
“…when we got our defence right we were solid, we kept them out on our line a few times which I’m proud of the boys for, and in their half with pressure we managed to force mistakes that led to tries, so yeah very impressed with our defence but there are times when we need to keep it going and that’s going to be our focus going into next week.”
We wait on news of James Oliver’s fitness; although flanker is a strong position for the men from the Silk town, who were also without 2 front rowers in Billy Robinson and Tom King this week and appeared to cope with Mark Irving putting in a huge shift on his return from injury, but that should add to the sides depth in the last 8 games.
The pack were very strong once again, and attacked with flair at times but the Star man goes to Myles Hall who was everywhere in attack defence, showing tireless energy, commitment to the cause and team spirit throughout.
Harrogate and Blaydon kept the pressure on with bonus wins, so remain one point behind while once table toppers Billingham suffered yet another defeat and now sit 5th behind Macc’s next opponents Sandal.