Blackheath 12 Bishop's Stortford 1st XV 21
By John Allanson
Magnificent Stortford defence brings a hard-earned win against a strong Blackheath side who are firmly in 4th place in the League and, until today, were only 3 points from the top.
Early exchanges were fairly evenly balanced between two sides eager to play fast, open rugby. It was the visitors that made the first telling breakthrough in the 14th minute, when Nick Hankin exploited a two on one out wide to touch down after good handling through several phases had stretched the home defence. Tom Banks converted confidently. Blackheath, though swept straight back onto the attack from the restart and, with good handling from their backs and power from their forwards in the loose, soon had Stortford's defence on the rack. Some characteristically committed tackling held out the home backs, but two swift forward thrusts off the fringe of rucks were enough for their pack to force their way over for an unconverted try. Stortford's attack now seemed to lose momentum, with a number of handling errors preventing any rhythm being found. As a result, Blackheath dominated possession for most of the rest of the half, providing an even tougher examination of the visitors' defence. This time it was able to hold firm, aided on occasions by handling errors from the opposition. No such help was on offer, though after half an hour, when Blackheath launched a lightning counter-attack, after a rare Stortford sortie into opposition territory broke down and it took some mighty scrambling by backs and forwards to prevent a second home try. With time running out in the half, the hosts mounted a series of further attacks and, despite more tremendous Stortford tackling, eventually forced a penalty under the posts. Despite being only 2 points behind, Blackheath took the bold decision to take a quick tap and spun the ball wide, only for a knock on to be made under pressure. The visitors were able then to see out time until the break, with their noses just in front.
Stortford started the second half strongly and, for a while found some attacking rhythm to threaten the Blackheath line a couple of times, but foundered on the home side's own strong defence. A couple of penalties conceded by the visitors produced a major turning point after 10 minutes, as the second was kicked to touch close to their 5 metre line and the pack had no answer to a well organised driving maul, which quickly shifted the point of attack and drove at the line. The maul collapsed and Tom McCrone was considered responsible, receiving a yellow card on top of the penalty try awarded by the referee, which took the scoreline to 12-7. This heralded another period of intense pressure on Stortford territory by Blackheath's constantly threatening backs, but this was met by an even more intense defensive effort and the threat was repelled. Stortford fought back and, if an inside pass from Banks, after a scything run by the scrum half from a Blackheath handling error, had gone straight to the hands of Joss Linney, it would surely have produced a try. As it was, the winger had to juggle the ball twice, thus losing momentum, though eventually manufactured a clever grubber kick and was only just beaten to the touchdown by a covering defender. Stortford managed to keep the pressure on and, when a penalty was won at a set scrum inside the Blackheath 22, the visitors' tails were lifted. The penalty went to touch and the lineout won, but Stortford's driving maul was stopped and the ball recycled to midfield. Now under intense pressure themselves, Blackheath conceded a penalty under their posts, which Banks tapped and went for the line. He was stopped just short, but Baxter Wilson, part of an outstanding backrow effort throughout, was on hand to seize on the ball and drive over through the ruck with 20 minutes left. Banks' conversion established a two point lead and both sides threw themselves into the fray with renewed vigour. Blackheath's backs again looked threatening, but the match turned some 10 minutes later, when a home forward was shown a red card at a breakdown after a crucial Stortford turnover. It took barely three minutes for the visitors to take advantage of the extra man, when a long pass from midfield created space out wide for Linney. The winger charged downfield, breaking the tackle of his opposite number and making more ground, before finding Reuben Bird-Tulloch with a pinpoint inside pass and the centre had just enough pace to make the line. Banks again added the extras and his side were able to see out the remaining minutes without any further score. In doing so, though, they did not make life easy for themselves, finishing the game on their own line after a loose kick direct into touch, when the ball had been passed back into their 22,had given Blackheath an attacking lineout. Once again, though, Stortford's tackling proved up to the task, finally forcing a turnover to herald the final whistle, triggering huge jubilation among the massed ranks of Stortford's great travelling supporters.
There will be some sore bodies tomorrow on both sides after this all-action encounter, but the visitors' second successive victory at this venue will undoubtedly aid their healing process. This ninth win in the last 10 fixtures, since Stortford were propping up the league in January, is surely the best to date, with a hugely committed performance against a top side.