Bulls Take A Step In The Right Direction
After 80 minutes and a feast of running rugby nothing could split the two sides in Banbury's latest Midlands One West league fixture with Stratford.
An excellent first half performance in which the Banbury Bulls once lead by 26 points to 3 was not quite enough to secure a morale boosting victory as opponents Stratford Upon Avon fought back to earn a 26 all draw with a late long range drop goal.
With their fate already sealed and the side getting used to the fact that next season they will be back playing rugby in Midlands Two the Bulls with nothing more to lose played the first 30 minutes of the game with flair as they played an expansive game which time and again had Stratford fully stretched.
On four minutes an indiscretion at the breakdown gave Bulls fly half Mike Smith the first opportunity to put points on the board with a long range penalty 46 metres out, however the continual backchat from the opposition lead to the referee marching them back a further 10 metres and Smith a much more comfortable attempt 36 metres from the post and although he struck it well it drifted just wide of the uprights.
Bulls outstanding open side flanker Will Oldham was a constant thorn in the side for Stratford as he was invariably the first to the breakdown to turn over possession and it was from one such turn over that the first points of the game came. Snatching the ball from the clutches of a Stratford player in the tackle Oldham burst through a hole in the opposition defence and headed 30 metres down field before drawing the fullback and passing to the supporting Peter Flemming who ran in to score. Smith was on target with the conversion to give the Bulls a 7 point lead on 10 minutes.
Their was a distinct contrast in the style of play from both teams as the Bulls continued to put width on the ball while Stratford were more intent to keep the ball a lot closer to the breakdown and use their big ball carriers to drive at the Bulls defence which for the most part held very strong during the first half.
Midway through the half and the Bulls were disturbing the scoreboard operator again as they attacked from a turn over just inside the Stratford half. Captain Eddie Phillips moved the ball to the blind side were some excellent handling by Darren De Bruyn put Flemming into space and his pass to left wing Andrew Mawle saw him run in to score out wide. Again Smith was on target with the boot and at 14-0 the visitors were somewhat shell shocked.
Only minutes later and the Bulls were at it again, from inside their own half centre Dave Taylor kicked across field and the bounce of the ball saw it roll into touch on the Stratford twenty two metre line. A penalty awarded to Banbury for obstruction at the line out saw Phillips take a quick tap penalty and on hand to take the pass was Oldham who drove himself over the line in the tackle. Smith again added the extras and at 21-0 the home supporters were starting to wonder where this team and the performance had been all year.
Unfortunately the Bulls lost centre Dave Taylor to a hamstring strain not long after and a shift around saw Dan Boys come on in the back row and De Bruyn move into the centres.
On the half hour mark after attempting two unsuccessful catch and drives from line outs close to the Bulls line Stratford opted to kick for goal and Jake White made no mistake with his attempt to bring the scores back to 21-3.
Literally only two minutes from the restart and the Bulls were at it again, turning over possession as they continued to win the race to the breakdown and from this a well weighted grubber kick from De Bruyn into the in goal area saw skipper Eddie Phillips win the race to the ball to score. Smith could not add the extra two points from the touch line but at 26-3 and only eight minutes to the end of the half the Bulls were well on top.
Then came a key moment in the game, with five minutes until half time Bulls number eight Simon Brand was yellow carded for coming through a ruck and going off his feet as he stripped the scrum half of the ball. From the penalty Stratford fly half White slotted the goal.
The crucial score of the game came right on the stroke of half time as the Bulls defended their own line exceptionally well to win a scrum just five metres out. However with the extra man in the pack Stratford were able to disrupt the put in and when the ball slipped out of the side of it flanker Mathewson was quick to scoop it up and crash over. The successful conversion brought Stratford right back into it at 26 points to 13 at the break.
Being in the unusual position of being up significantly at half time must have played on the minds of the Bulls players as they tightened up their game and went into their shells somewhat, while Stratford still playing to the same game plan came back at them time and again.
Five minutes into the half and a barrage of punches thrown by the Stratford number six for what seemed no reason at all gave the referee no option but to red card him and give the Bulls a numerical advantage for the last 35 minutes. However this seemed to galvanise the visitors and playing a much better kicking game to secure a territorial advantage Stratford came hard at the Bulls.
Two successful penalty attempts from White brought the deficit back to just 10 points with quarter of the game to go and then came another blow for the Bulls who lost the influential Oldham to what has subsequently turned out to be a broken arm. Again the side had to be altered with coach Grant Holmes coming on and slotting into the scrum half position, De Bruyn moved back into the back row, Flemming into the centres and skipper Phillips dropping back to fullback.
They Bull repelled several attacks on their goal line but without being able to secure any clean possession from first phase the visitors kept coming back at them and the Bulls discipline started to slip which put them under even more pressure, which eventually cracked as Stratford drove over the line to score at their second attempt. Again the conversion attempt sailed between the posts and with still 10 minutes to play and only three points between the sides the crowd were in for a grandstand finish.
Stratford came hard at the Bulls again but some resolute defence as they fought to hold on to their slender lead saw the Stratford fullback Simon Brain step up into the fly half spot and bang a long range drop goal between the posts from over 40 metres out to level the scores with less than five minutes to go.
From the kick off Stratford lost the ball which bounced into the hands of De Bruyn who charged well inside the visitors twenty two but with two defenders reeling him in he lobbed a pass over the top to the supporting Dan Boys but unfortunately with the line open he was unable to hold on to the ball knocking on and giving possession back to Stratford. They launched one last attack and driving into the Bulls half they gave fullback Brain one last attempt to secure a last gasp victory but his drop goal this time was off target rolling over the dead ball line to signal the end of the game.
Bulls coach Grant Holmes was disappointed that his side were not able to hold on to victory after watching what he described as the best half an hour of rugby they have played this season.
“For the past few weeks we have talked about having nothing to lose and gave license to the guys to go and express themselves, move the ball around a bit more and play without any fear and what we saw in the first 30 minutes of the game was a well structured performance, it wasn’t 7’s style it was good work at the breakdown which allowed us to put width on the ball and by doing that we created chances and this time around we converted a much higher percentage of chances into points. We have also set ourselves little targets and we achieved one on Saturday by improving on our performance from the last time we were in this league. Back then we secured three wins and this time around we have three wins and a draw and with two games to go I am confident we can improve on that again.”
“It think our second half performance was probably a little reflective of our season. We have rarely been in such a strong position going into the second half during this season and we went into our shells a bit, not wanting to throw the ball about for fear of making mistakes and being punished for it.”
“Sure Stratford came back and played a much better game in the second half but I think had we continued to play the expansive style that worked so well in the first half then we would have secured victory.”
“Losing Dave (Taylor) and more importantly Will Oldham during the course of the match did not help us at all. Will was outstanding, always first to the breakdown to turn over possession or ensure we held on to our own. Having played at a high standard in Scotland while studying up north his experience and ability on the pitch makes a difference every time he plays. We wish him well in his recovery which will obviously see him out for the rest of the season but we hope that he will be back with us next season.”
“With a break in league action this weekend which has been welcomed by the players having played continuously since Christmas we will rest up before our next assignment which will be a tough one away at Sutton Coldfield, but the boys are determined to show that we are a much better outfit than the score line from our previous encounter suggests.”