Darlington Mowden Park v Macclesfield April 26th 2014
By David Wilkinson (Wilkey)
No doubt there have been many great games played by Macclesfield Rugby Club, and many not seen with my eyes, but this one will be remembered by all who were there on the day as truly: ‘A great game of rugby’!
The season, in National Two North, had been very competitive from the start; our long-time rivals Stourbridge and Sedgley Park were joined by big-spending Darlington Mowden Park as the front runners. As the season progressed it turned into a three-horse-race with Sedge slipping up at too many fences. March until the end of the season would turn into an incredibly competitive period of rugby for the big three. Any team not gaining a five point victory each week would seriously jeopardise their Championship ambitions. The banter between clubs via the online Rolling Maul forum was continuous, with yours truly trying to hold his own with the Stour heavyweights.
In the big match run-in Macc faced Stourbridge at Priory Park in a much-awaited contest. Big crowds from both clubs created a fantastic atmosphere on the day. Macc’s Pies versus Pork Scratchings; and Wilkey’s “Whaa-Hoos” versus Stour’s very noisy ‘Shouty Corner’! Macc scored 4 tries to Stour’s 2 but it ended 25-25. Stour beat DMP up at the Echo Arena and after DMP went through their formality of beating Sheffield Tigers, in their game in hand, it was all down to the very last game of the season. Macc topped the league with 130 points with Stour and DMP both on 126 points; it was still very much up for grabs, particularly as Macc had to play DMP at the enormous Northern Echo Arena in the last game. The online pundits were full of themselves with a myriad of permutations; but the reality was that Macc were in front, and still in the box-seat!
This would be the last game in charge for Head Coach Geoff Wappett, and in theory the fitting climax to a highly successful coaching career. When asked what his final words to the team would be before crossing the whitewash he had this to say: “I’ll just tell them to go out there and play to their strengths. They’ve earned the right to be in this position, so now they have the opportunity for glory, they owe it to themselves to go out there and take it with both hands. Not many players get to be in such a position during their careers, so it’s incumbent on them to make sure they don’t waste the opportunity. The glory is there waiting; they just have to go out there and seize the day.”
There were over 400 Macclesfield travelling supporters that journeyed to Darlington, there to be joined by at least four thousand more home supporters; a big crowd, but dwarfed by the empty seats of the 25,500 seat Northern Echo Arena. That said, with the crowd bunched together, the atmosphere was to be electric. Whilst Chairman Peter Harper and the others took their seats, Clive Kirkham and I chose to stand pitch-side, to be close to the action, and make ourselves heard. There was much banter with the local DMP supporters before kick-off, Macc had earned a reputation in National Two for being somewhat dour in their approach, using their big pack to dominate play; the Teesside boys were keen to let us now that their fleet-of-foot backs would run us ragged on their big fast pitch. The game kicked-off and the Macclesfield forwards didn’t disappoint; a driving maul forcing prop Billy Robinson over the top of the defence to score. Captain Tom Eaton slotted the conversion and we were in front; but the score ignited the Darlington team to get into the game, they were not going to lose the league without a fight. The first wave of attacks was repulsed by a last-ditch, try-saving tackle from Ashley Platt-Hughes, but in the build-up Sam Moss had infringed, once too often, and sent to the Sin Bin. Their kick to the corner and a series of rucks and mauls saw Darlington Second Row Chris Cambell being forced over the line – the scores were now level.
Darlington now started to use their backline to the full, exploiting the space, turning the Macc defence this way and that, finding gaps; then a well timed show-and-go by Fly Half, Tom Hodgson created a gap big enough for him to canter unopposed to the try-line. It was 14-7 after 25 minutes and DMP had their tales-up, quick-fire passing in the backs created another opportunity; as Clive and I screamed: “Forward-pass Referee”, they crossed the whitewash. Thankfully the Referee’s Assistant had his flag up, and the score was disallowed, much to the chagrin of the local heckling hoards. But on the stroke of half-time the Macc line was breached again and Darlington led 21-7.
Geoff Wappett recalls his words in the changing room as the team regrouped: “I told them that we were stronger in the forwards, and that we had to use that advantage to maximum effect in the second half. Darlington definitely had the upper hand behind the pack, so I told the boys we had to try and deny them space and opportunity. We’re very well aware of our strengths, but felt that we hadn’t necessarily played to them in the first 40 minutes. The final message was simply to have faith in the system that had served us so well previously.”
At pitch-side, the competitive banter continued as a few of the locals attempted to bait Clive with taunts of: “You’re just a big pack!” There was some serious defending to be done, but Macc weathered the first storm and after 15 minutes had an attacking lineout opportunity. The pack that day, whilst still very strong, had been forced into several changes; the most significant had been that of Ryan Parkinson. Parky had had a fantastic season scoring 33 tries in the number 8 shirt, but two weeks prior had picked up an injury. Before kick-off a failed fitness test, in the changing rooms, put the young Cameron Neild into his shirt. Cameron had been on loan from Sale Sharks and had recently put in some very good performances, but this was to be his best. Mossy threw straight and a typical catch-and-drive from the big Macc pack saw Cameron cross the line. The fight back was on, but in minutes Darlington found some space on the blind-side of a scrum to restore their 14 point lead, which also gave them a try scoring bonus point.
It required a lot of faith from the Macc followers and a lot of grit and determination from the team to believe that the job could still be done, but the boys were not going down without a fight. What followed was a fight-back of monumental proportions, they didn’t panic, just turned the screw, putting more and more pressure on Darlington. Penalties followed and Geoff Wappett’s perfect Ten-Man-Tom and Skipper put the ball in the corner for an attacking lineout. There was no contest, Deano plucked it out of the sky, the big Macc pack was over, and Cameron Neild had grabbed his brace. At this point, there was for once genuine hope, and real fear in the eyes of the Teesside team.
It was now 28 – 17 and I recalled to Clive some banter I had engaged in, with the Rolling Maul online pundits back in March. I had predicted, tongue-in-cheek, that we would win all our remaining games with bonus points but lose the last game to DMP, but still win the league with two bonus points from the match – there was much online derision. Geoff Wappett was a meticulous and very canny coach, and he would have, without doubt, discussed every possible scenario with the team, they would also be in no doubt what was now needed; not a win, just another try. This would give a four try bonus point and put the score within seven for an added losing bonus point.
What followed was the most exciting, pulsating, heart-pounding 10 minutes of live sport that I have ever witnessed during my considerable years of playing and watching rugby. As the clock ticked down Macclesfield were relentless, wave after wave of attack, but if they didn’t score they were out of it, Darlington couldn’t help but infringe under the continuous pressure, and yellow was shown. With now only 14 men we were sure they would crack, but the home side would not splinter and surrender their line. Both lots of supporters roared for their teams and as the play came to just feet from us Clive and I screamed like the Banshee: “Come-on Macc”.
The heavens open and stair-rods instantly flood the surface. Scrum Half Jordon Brookes orchestrates the forwards as they charge again, 10 metres out; pick-and-go, stopped just 2 metres short; Ed Stobbart darts in to help secure the ball, it’s shipped open and Mantell charges again, the defence are there but its quick ball and as Jordan has his hands on the slimy ball Tom Eaton screams from the blind-side. In his haste, it’s an awful pass, 6 inches above the ground and 6 feet in front of Eaton; Clive and I groan; but somehow Eats has it, and across the rain-drenched surface he desperately struggles to gain a purchase and win the race to the line; he’s not going to make it; he dives; too soon; but like a children’s water-slide he shoots forward; he’s over; and immediately engulfed by bodies! The crowd roar; but the referee calls for his assistant and all is quiet; his arm shoots-up, and there’s uproar; Billy Robinson sprints towards us, two fists pumping the air, we turn to commiserate with the locals, but they’ve disappeared! The game is over with only the conversion to take before the Championship presentation. Tom steps up, slips in the wet and it still sails between the posts; 28-24 – it was the Skipper’s day and there was much fun to follow.
Little did we know of the drama at Stourbridge; the wrong result is posted on Twitter and they think that they are the Champions. Out on the pitch the rain still falls as the Blues revel in the Pink, literally, whilst the team in sky blue are disconsolate, tears are shed; but the play-off to come against Ampthill, after a titanic battle, will eventually also elevate them into the third tier, where they remain still.