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Matt Harding and Steve Mannion, the front-row, smiling, Sale assassins!

GIANT KILLERS: Macclesfield’s Greatest Games Part V/VI

By David Wilkinson

These two games were played by near enough the same squads, the players involved believe that even though there was no silverware won, they were two of Macclesfield’s finest performances.

The first of the two games was played at Priory Park against Sale in the Cheshire Cup. It was 3 years after the historic beating of Sale to take the Cheshire Cup for the first time; this time it would be the semi-final and played at Priory Park. Much had changed at Sale in 3 years, the game was now fully professional and Sale was sitting fourth from top, in the English leagues, six divisions higher than Macclesfield. Paul Turner, a Wales international Fly Half had joined Sale in 1992 as a player/coach, developing a fast-flowing brand of rugby that was serving them very well. Rob Davies had been playing at Sale when the first Cup game was played in ’92, but missed it through injury; now playing again for Macc he recalls the start of the game: “This was a very different team, the old-guard had gone, this was a very professional side, made up of internationals like David Rees, on the wing, who had chipped over Jonah Lomu’s head, to score for England, and Irish international no.8 Dylan O’Grady, plus other internationals;  the team was a mixture of first and second-team squad players and the odd academy player”.

Paul Turner’s brand of rugby was there for everyone to see from the kick-off, the place was electric, and for the first fifteen minutes, they ran Macc ragged, but couldn’t cross the line. Rob Davies recalls: “We were under the pump for so long, but somehow we managed to hang on, our defence that day was incredible, the likes of Mark Droy, skipper Dave Worthington and Taffy (Chris Watts) in the back-row.  Taffy wasn’t a regular starter, but that day he was on fire, the other player who was massive in defence was my co-centre Justin Thomas; if it wasn’t for Justin, Sale would have probably scored five or more tries, in fact, Paul Turner inquired about him after the match.”

Paul Turner’s high-speed training ground rugby hadn’t worked; Macclesfield had survived the storm and was, in fact, the first to score through the boot of Steve Burnage. Rob recalls that it didn’t seem that Sale had a Plan B, whereas Burnage’s laser-boot was pinging Sale back into the corners: “It was the Burnage-Cusani-Show, with Cus winning the set-piece, the pack holding their own in the scrum and Justin keeping the defence together.” Whilst Sale had by far the stronger team on paper and were playing the more attractive rugby, Macclesfield, cheered on by the large crowd, were defensively and tactically as strong as this top-flight side, Rob thought that Macc was the stronger ‘team’: “We were a solid side with a proven game plan, the pack was particularly effective in the set pieces with a front row of Matt Harding, Dave Taylor and Steve Mannion, they always won their own ball, then the experience of Cus and the young Jerry Bostock in the second row, and the dynamic back row led by Worthy, who was just naturally very fit and powerful. The big turning point came midway through the second half; Cusani had been winding up Dylan O’Grady in the line-out, Dylan was known to be hot-headed, and at the next ruck, he threw a punch at Cusani, laying him out. O’Grady was shown red and we thought that Cus was out of it, but he gathered himself and gave us a ‘wink’ getting to his feet”. Matt Harding recalls: “O’Grady was furious, and on leaving the pitch, to the jeers of the crowd, he punched the changing room door, smashing it; we sent Sale the bill”.

Steve Burnage, lethal with the boot
Steve Burnage, lethal with the boot

The rest of the match panned out as before with Sale trying to play all the rugby and Steve Burnage pegging them back with the boot and kicking a further two penalties. Sale’s fly-half Rob Liley, who at the end of the season joined Leicester, had not had the best day with the boot, unlike his counterpart; after another try-saving tackle by Justin Thomas, before the final whistle, the game finished 9 – 6. Rob says that afterwards, they could not believe how they had managed to contain David Rees: “He was virtually unplayable”; however as no one can recall where Sale’s six points came from, perhaps he did escape the clutches of Chris Miller – just once!

The disappointing postscript was that in the final, against Winnington Park, Macc pushing for promotion into the National Leagues fielded what was virtually a second team and lost the Final.

In the November of that year, now captained by Rob Davies, Macclesfield took on Walsall in the third round of the Pilkington Cup. The winners would go into Tony Hallet’s ‘Purple Velvet Bag’ to play one of the top teams. It was a warm autumn day that had attracted a very big crowd and entertained by a local brass band. Walsall was a very successful Midlands side that played several divisions higher in the National Leagues, and within their ranks they boasted the talents of Richard Moon a former Harlequin and England U23 scrum-half. Both Richard Usher and Dave Cusani had now retired and were replaced by Justin Thomas and Steve Henshall respectively; Neil Pierce came into the centre with Simon Montgomery at full-back, with Dean and Chris Crompton on the wings, otherwise, it was the same starting line-up as against Sale.

A well earned breather during the end-to-end action.
A well earned breather during the end-to-end action.

It was an end-to-end high-scoring contest, with the lead constantly changing hands. Rob considers it to be his best game for Macclesfield and indeed Macc’s best playing performance pre the National League games in more recent years. He remembers his try on the day fondly as being his best: “We had defended deep into our 22 and knocked the ball on, at the scrum I stood for some reason on the blind-side, not opposite my man, but Dave Taylor being the excellent Hooker that he was, won it against the head. I called to Justin for the ball, as if he’d passed to Burnage, he’d have just hoofed it; I had the 8 and the 6 to beat and once passed them the gap was there and I got passed Moon; their Winger then tracked me and I had the Crompton brothers in support; before I knew it I was five metres from the line so I just dived, taking the Walsall tacklers with me”. The score had put Macclesfield back in front with minutes to go 35 – 33. What happened next is best forgotten, but a scrum collapsed a long way out, but in front of the sticks, Walsall got the decision and Moon kicked it. Steve Burnage recalls that they got one last chance in the dying seconds: “I could have saved the day but the penalty was a long way out and it didn’t quite make it”.

It had been a phenomenal game but somebody had to lose, the real disappointment came after training on the Monday, when the next draw was made; away at Gloucester, what a road-trip that would have been!


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