Macclesfield sat top of the tree coming into this one and were brimming with confidence after a gutsy away win Carlisle last week, while Sandal had won their last 3 sitting 4th within the table.
The week leading up to the game had left the Priory Park pitch in quite a state and with the impending threat of Storm Denis, it was only thanks to a huge effort by the grounds staff that the game was going ahead, and the stodgy surface would prove to be quite a leveller.
Both sides had early opportunities in each other’s ’22, with the visitors unable to capitalise on their half break down the right wing and running back a couple of exit kicks, while the home side settled for 3 points from their foray into opposition territory, that came from Will Davies’s boot 8 minutes in, after the Macc pack had pushed Sandal off their own scrum.
The wet, windy and extremely muddy conditions made for a lot of handling errors and both teams struggled to put phases together; much of the action was played out between the ‘22s’ until a series of penalties allowed Sandal to put to the corner and drive over on 16 minutes through A. Thompson (3-5).
Unfortunately the Cheshire outfit compounded the error straight from the resulting restart as Tom Morton’s drop out skidded along the ground (due to the fact the ball just didn’t bounce as he struck it on one of the worst areas of the pitch), and the chasers were unable to prevent their opponents bursting through the middle with some impressive offloading to put Dec Thompson under the posts to lead (3-12 after 19 minutes).
Sandal began to edge the territory game through the benefit of the wind and a good kicking game that was difficult to deal with in the conditions, before Macc had a really good spell of territory, but kept coughing-the-ball-up at key moments; the heavy ground was appearing to slow down the home side, that usually relies on a high paced game.
On 32 minutes Morton started his team’s best sustained period of play running back a kick reception, the forwards built the phases before Harry Oliver broke down the right to set up birthday boy Dan Lomax to score in the corner, the tackle on him as he went over the line meant the try was upgraded to a Penalty try putting Macc back in the game 10-12.
However Sandal had other ideas and replied with a try from winger Ellar who was put into space, afterthe restart was dropped and his pack laid the platform from the resulting scrum, a pack that were growing into the game and getting the upper hand at the contact area.
The visitors took a 19-10 lead into the break. The away fans were vocal, led by their coaches visible reactions on the bench, while the home side appeared frustrated with their side’s handling errors as much as anything else, but with the wind at their backs in the second half there was no sense of panic.
The home side looked to put territorial pressure on their visitors, immediately in the second half, but the Sandal managed to find a way out each time, before Macc were able to wrestle back the initiative enjoying a long spell in the red zone. Unfortunately the men in blue came away empty handed as the Yorkshire side held firm in defence.
Macc looked again to up the tempo and energy but were not managing the conditions well as quick taps were dropped and basic passes were going to ground, perhaps the pressure of urgency didn’t help.
It looked as though they may be able to win back the momentum when Morton’s kick into the opposition 22 was chased down and turned over, and after an infringement the home side were able to maul over through Sam Moss to make it 15-19 on 64 minutes. However silly mistakes, indiscipline and superior game management, by the visitors, meant the Priory Park team spent too much of the remaining time in the match, pegged back, yielding 2 penalties that secured the result. The second of which where the pack, who had been so superior at set piece in the opening exchanges were forced off their own ball under their posts after another handling error when trying to play from deep.
A penalty under Sandal’s posts, which would have secured a losing bonus point, was shunned. With 2 minutes to play the home side must have felt they still had time to win the game, the kick to the corner was botched, which meant that Macc came away with nothing from this encounter, a damaging result on a day when Blaydon and Harrogate both took wins to take 1st and 2nd place respectively.
Ultimately the conditions played into Sandal’s hands as their big pack won the physical elements of the game and Wood, their 10, nudged them around the field very well.
This weekend is another fallow week so the boys will have to wait until the week after to try and set the record straight against Blackburn, but may benefit from some time to regroup and allow their pitch to recover.
All is not lost as we have seen this season multiple times and the lead has changed hands four times in the last 6 weeks. But with 7 games to go, 4 points behind in 3rd, Macclesfield can’t afford another slip up.