This was essentially the biggest game of the season so far for Macclesfield, with previous high fliers Billingham suffering a hat-trick of defeats after 13 wins in a row, meaning it was 1st against 3rd. Macc were looking to make it 5 wins in a row whilst Harrogate had not tasted defeat since the 9th November against the then, table toppers from the North East.
Many who turned up for the top of the table clash were anticipating a tight, nervy affair as the Yorkshire side boasted the best defence (averaging only 14 against them per game) in the league and Macclesfield had accumulated the second most points for (averaging 30 a game) in the league. However what transpired was anything but a close game and left the locals on top of the world.
On a damp and windy day in Cheshire, Priory Park was rocking with a club house full enjoying the President’s Lunch before battle commenced between these 2 Northern Premier titans; and the atmosphere clearly put life into the home side as Macc started strongly, scoring twice in the opening 10 minutes. First Welsh number 8, Dafydd Rees inspired by his country’s resounding win over Italy, scored from the base of a 5m scrum on 5 minutes after powering into the Harrogate ’22. Macc showed great attacking flair to force their way straight back up the pitch to create a couple of opportunities, the latter of which outside centre Harry Oliver finished the break created by Sam Broster, maintaining his record as top try scorer with 10 for the season. Full Back Will Davies converted both to lead 14-0 as the home side looked to rack up the points while playing with the wind.
Harrogate were now struggling for territory and chose not to put boot-to-ball in phase play, nor when penalties were awarded deep in their half, instead choosing to build phases, but Macc had other ideas, showing great resilience and aggression in defence, thus forcing errors. The league leaders still looked dangerous though, particularly left winger Harry Jukes, who managed to get round his opposite number off a first phase move on half way and beat 3 men to finish and remind the home fans that they wouldn’t have it all their own way, 14-7 on the half hour.
In recent times, having their good start halted might have seen a drop in confidence by the Cheshire outfit, but Macc have been playing with such verve and confidence this last few weeks that that was never going to happen on this occasion. Captain Tom Morton and his men reacted to the ‘Gate try in the best possible way, building phases and working their way down field again, defending well and forcing mistakes out of their opponents and getting their just rewards, with Myles Hall scoring off a nice move after a half-break from the scrum by Sam Stelmazsek was stopped just short. Broster then created the gap for a second time in the match. The backs were looking as sharp as the forwards were powerful; 21-7 to the home side at the break and the blustery wind in their sails.
More of the same would have been the requested in the sheds at half time, from Coaches Andy Appleyard and Rick Jones, and that is exactly what they got. The men in blue never looked back in the second period. A strong kicking game kept the visitors pegged back and the home side’s desire to build phases from deep and power forward put them on the front foot, and in field position. On 48 minutes Macc showed excellent Red Zone execution as flanker Jordan Simpson made it 2 tries in 2 games blasting over off 9 second phase from 10 metres out after Brosters’ initial hit-up laid the platform (28-7).
There was no sign of fatigue on the part of the local side as they looked to play from everywhere, putting long spells of phase play together, and broke out of their own 22 through Josh Redfern, who was brought down on half way and a yellow card was issued to the off-side second row Arthur Hannam, the travellers were now really up against it. They rallied though and had a chance to get back into the game with a series of pens put to the corner and maul attempts but Macc stole the lineout and escaped, which chewed up more time out of the game. Harrogate did manage to pull a score back through the influential number 8 Jonny Coser but time was slipping away for anyone hoping for a close finish, and all thoughts of a comeback were put to bed when Josh Redfern saw a gap at guard 20m out, and picked through to finish the attack and the game. 35-14 up and the game surely safe as the home fans were sent into raptures.
Harrogate huffed and puffed as they went in search of a losing and/or try bonus point but Macc were as good in defence as they were in attack, spoiling set pieces and repelling carriers and when the ball was turned over just short of the Macc line on 78 minutes, Macc could consider their defeat in the reverse fixture earlier this season, avenged.
In truth, Macclesfield rarely looked troubled as they defended so well and in attack just looked ferocious, building phase after phase from deep. The pack was colossal and the backs were piercingly sharp. Not to tempt fate but the Priory Park side look like they have clicked, and could yet perhaps go up a gear.
A star man is difficult to pick out as everyone contributed but Josh Redfern gets our vote as he was energetic and powerful in defence and attack, with an honourable mention for Sam Broster who probably had his best game of the season.
Head Coach Andy Appleyard was full of praise for his side after the game, stating: “Its brilliant, I’ve just been speaking to a few people and we are just so proud of the boys, they’ve reacted well to last season, trained hard all pre-season, worked hard over Christmas and got themselves now to a point where we have learned so many lessons, we have addressed a number of issues in our game, and we have promoted everything that is good. We are really in the swing of things now and it’s great to see the boys enjoying it and seeing smiles on faces out there.”
Blaydon overcame Billingham who lost for a 4th game in a row, meaning Macclesfield finished the round top by a point with 9 games to go. Can Macclesfield push on to the title now, starting with a trip to Carlisle next week?