By David Wilkinson
Macclesfield v Barking at Twickenham, RFU HQ
It was to be the climax of a most competitive season in the fourth tier of rugby; North versus South, each team winners of their respective regional leagues, in a winner-takes-all National 2 Final.
It was a level of rugby that Macclesfield players and supporters had only ever dreamed of. The past 8 years had seen much success, and with the Club well-positioned to challenge for greater things they had put together a backroom staff that included: Director of Rugby Geoff Whappett, Andy Northey and Brendon Thomas.
The season had been exceedingly competitive, Sam Moss recalls: “Every match was critical, we had to get five points every game on the run-in, or we would be out of it; I just remember the enormity of it all going down to Twickers, I’d not experienced anything like it before, the intensity of the game in the vast Twickenham stadium was huge”.
Anthony (Tote) Howcroft’s memory is still alive, with what happened at Twickenham: “It would have been easy to approach it as a nice day out at HQ as we were already promoted into National 1, so promotion wasn’t riding on the game; but his was never going to be the case for this team, this was the best side I had played in at Macclesfield and nothing other than winning was going to be accepted. The team had the perfect mix of a hard work ethic, talent and team spirit, lead by no-nonsense coaching from Geoff Wappett and Andy Northey, which gave us a hard edge. There is a lot of theory on developing winning cultures in the sport now, in my experience this is impossible to manufacture, it has to come from within the group; this team had that winning culture in spades. There was respect within the playing group but more importantly, there was an honesty, an understanding of the standards expected of you, if you wanted to be a part of it; if a players standards fell short of that demanded standard we dealt with it within the team. As a result, we had a winning culture with a desire to constantly improve which led us to success”.
“The build up to the game was good, we celebrated winning the league hard on Saturday and then got back to recovery and preparation for Twickenham on Monday, we talked a lot about how important this game was, and to put down a marker for our first season in National 1 the following season; and of course the importance of representing Macclesfield RUFC and the town, at Twickenham. We travelled to our hotel near Heathrow on Friday, had a quiet night and headed to HQ on Saturday morning. We were the main final that day and had been given the England dressing room, I remember how huge the changing rooms were; the sense of history in the room was palpable. It would be very easy to get overawed by the environment but after a walk around and our team photo was taken outside the Spirit of Rugby, we got about our usual routine; we were not there for the occasion we were there to win”.
“We had a great pack during that era and the best back-row combination the Club had seen with Dan Baines, Evan Stewart and Jonathan Keep, they combined, as they usually did, for Evan to score the opening try. We knew Barking were quick, and that they liked to throw the ball around a lot; even so, they then caught us a bit cold, when their fullback rounded us, scoring off a set-piece play”.
A 40-yard penalty by Ross Winney after an offence at the breakdown edged Macclesfield back ahead after 24 minutes, but Barking were quickly in the driving seat again five minutes later when a powerful forward surge ended in a try from prop Aaron Liffchak. Barking’s post-match press release reported: “The stalemate upfront, broken only by Barking’s dominance at the scrummage, continued to half time. Both sides found progress hard to make in the face of the obdurate defence, but neither lacked the ambition to move the ball wide when opportunities arose”.
Tom Mantel recalls: “Back then, what would become a formidable Front-Row-Union had not fully matured, and to begin with we were under a lot of pressure, until Billy (Robinson) came on, immediately making a big difference”.
Barking went into the second period with a two-point advantage at 12-10, but Macc had raised the tempo after the break and after a spell of pressure, we were rewarded with a Winney penalty to lead 13-12. The lead then changed hands again when Barking eventually won a footing in Macc territory; we had done well to keep them at bay through a series of breakdowns, but eventually, we were spread too thinly and scrum-half Jack Gash dived, theatrically, through an opening, for a try by the posts for a 19-13 lead.
The deficit was narrowed with a third penalty from Ross on the hour; what unfolded was an attritional, physical contest, but although neither side was willing to take a backward step, Barking’s defence was beginning to be sternly tested. It was finally breached after more sustained pressure from Macclesfield; with Richard Hughes getting on the outside of Fergus Mulchrone for a well-engineered try that Winney converted.
There was to be no respite for Barking as the Macc Lads went for the jugular, and another relentless onslaught brought a try for replacement Ed Sayce that Skipper Ross Winney converted to give his side a 30-19 lead. Even then, Barking had one shot left in their locker as replacement Alex Casey drove over in the corner, in injury time, with Ratford converting from the touchline, but it was too late to set up any further last-gasp excitement, as the referee blew for time.
Tote Howcroft continues the story: “It was a very tight game which we eventually won 30 – 26, but looking back after the opening minutes it felt more comfortable than that scoreline suggests, we strangled them out of the game and didn’t allow them to play the open expansive game that they wanted to. That’s what it comes down to in rugby, both teams go into a game with a game plan they want to execute and it is up to you to impose your game on the opposition and stop them dictating the flow of the game; that is what we were very good at under Geoff and Northey. Winning the National 2 title at Twickenham was without doubt one of the highlights of my playing career, days like that are very special and live with you forever. To win the trophy in front of all our friends and family and a great number of travelling Macclesfield fans was an unbelievable feeling, all the unseen hard work that had gone into that moment is what made it so special recalling it now makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, in my opinion, it is a feeling only sport can give you”.
Tom Mantell remembers little more about the game: “I just remember that it was very hot and that the game has very hard and very fast; the post-match celebrations were awesome, collecting our medals to the sounds of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ being played on the big speakers – it had been our winners’ post-match tune all season. After that it all got a bit messy, with a big night out in Clapham”.
Director of Rugby Geoff Whappett had this to say after the game: “It was a tense, close, hard affair at the end of the long, hard season; it was an absolute tussle. I thought we got the mastery in the second half. They had it over us on pace, so we had to stop giving them the free runs they had at us in the first half. We also needed to keep the ball better and make them defend for longer periods. We did that quite well in the second-half and we were patient. We were also very well served by two experienced half-backs, who steadied the ship and managed the game very well.”
It was the first and last time that a North v South National League title would be played for at Twickenham, as a consequence there is only one name on the trophy, which should be on show again soon once the new trophy cabinet is constructed.
Geoff Whappett further strengthened the squad in the close-season; significantly with the signing of Charlie Mulchrone, for what was to be a very successful period with Macclesfield RUFC. Sadly it was to be the last season for Tote Howcroft, with a knee ligament injury prematurely terminating his career. Macclesfield would finish the season in the third position of National One, putting the Club 27th in the country a fantastic achievement from what was previously considered a ‘Junior Club’. Many will now think that this is not a height that we can climb to again; but who knows, the solid base that the rugby club is now founded upon bodes very well for the future, with a very ambitious squad and coaching team – watch this space.
The victorious Macclesfield RUFC squad were: R McDermott; M Simpson, R Hughes, A Howcroft, F Mulchrone; R Winney capt, T Eaton; T Mantell, S Moss, M Kent, A Marsh, M Owen, D Baines, E Stewart, J Keep.
Replacements: W Robinson, P Allen, B Latham, C Jones, C Townsend, E Sayce, J Lowdon, M O’Regan.