Saturday 6th. February 2016
North 1 West
Altrincham Kersal 20 – 37 Wilmslow
Yet another mud bath for the players, a sodden churned up but playable pitch, intermittent bursts of bad tempered rain spitting down and a surprisingly good game of rugby. Whatever the conditions, the Wolves will always try to play their preferred running and passing game, bringing their fleet footed backs into the picture as much as possible. They didn't make a bad stab of it at Stelfox and some of their play was at times outstanding. But it takes two to make a match. Altrincham Kersal know they don't have the same skills and pace in their back line but they do have a robust pack of forwards, who in the first half at least were masters in the scrum and lineout, pushing the lighter Wilmslow eight backwards and they'd clearly worked out a game plan, which included low trajectory kicks at the restart, skidding and bouncing across the turf to make it as difficult as possible to field the ball.
At half time AK led by 20-17, three tries apiece and a penalty on the stroke of half time being all that separated the sides. And then the game changed in the second half. The AK scrum found itself on the back foot and their lineout, so powerful early on, lost its momentum and accuracy. The Wolves grabbed the opportunity to run in three second half tries and a penalty without reply. For a period midway through the half, they just threatened to sweep AK away. The home side rallied though in the final minutes even though the game had been lost by then and they were unlucky not to get a fourth bonus point earning try.
Wilmslow coach Rick Jones had had to shuffle his resources for this game. The Wolves talismanic skipper Mike Black was still side lined, Robert Taylor was ill and Mike Clifford unavailable. They were replaced by Max Harvey, Adam Taher, Jack Masters and Ben Stern. Harry Patch, on his twenty first birthday, no less, was back and there was a start for the New Zealander Kiwi Hone Karaka at No. 13. Not for many years has a Wilmslow coach been able to call up a group of such talented young players.
Nevertheless first blood went to AK. Their kick to start the game caused all sorts of difficulties for the fielding Wilmslow forwards. Left wing Sam Cutts eventually got it out of play on around the Wolves twenty two but from the lineout the AK pack launched a disciplined drive, which the Wolves seemed to have no idea how to defend, from which No. 8 John Bishop to get the first of his three touchdowns of the game.
From the restart, AK tried much the same forward drive again but this time it went to ground and the Wolves had a scrum. In the next play, AK got penalised but Bob MacCallum's kick for goal from one of those 50/50 sort of positions, although struck well, was wide of the uprights. No matter, the Wolves were testing AK's defence with their attacking play and when they offended again Wilmslow's alert scrum half Andy Walker made a quick dart from just inside the twenty two and held off the defence for an opportunistic score.
Wilmslow's forwards then failed to deal with the restart and found themselves conceding a scrum on their own line. The AK pack puffed and heaved its way across the line for Bishop's second touch down. The Wolves response was immediate, they earned a penalty which put them into the corner and after keeping the ball alive through several phases No. 8 Alex Taylor wasn't for stopping from ten yards. Barely fifteen minutes had been played and it was already 12-12. We had to wait about ten minutes before another series of Wolves' attacks initiated from the lineout produced a first score for Karaka making the extra man out on the left.
AK now enjoyed their best period of the match. Both their driving lineout and scrum looked very dangerous on several occasions and it was no surprise when a second pushover levelled matters, just before the interval. There was still time for another AK attack from the scrum, which ended with three points from a penalty.
Whatever Jones had to say at half time about disrupting AK's supply must have had more effect than even he could have thought possible. The Wolves attacked vigorously from the restart, AK offended in the tackle and MacCallum tied things up at 20-20. AK then spurned a penalty chance for a kick to the corner but this was the start of their lineout problems, four times they were denied by the Wolves and eventually after several attempts the ball was cleared. MacCallum then stuck a fine kick into touch in AK's twenty two. The ball was overthrown and taken by Taher at the back of the line, who made a ten yard dash before offloading to Ben Stern for a straight forward run in, converted by MacCallum.
Another attacking AK lineout was well defended and two penalties in quick succession found the Wolves just ten yards from the AK line again, where they worked a front of lineout move, releasing Josh Whiteley for try number five. For the next ten minutes the Wolves had AK bottled up in or near their own twenty two, threatening to score more than once. The sixth try eventually came when quick lineout ball was spun along the line, through the rain, and recycled down the narrow side for Karaka to burrow through at pace for his second try. An auspicious game for the young Kiwi, who hardly put a foot wrong all afternoon.
The game had now been won and lost but there was still the matter of a fourth try bonus point for AK to pursue in the dying minutes. The Wolves were forced back on the defensive but the thin blue line. In the end, both sides had acquitted themselves well, the difference being that the Wolves just had the composure to take more of their chances.
Next week, the Wolves are at home to Vale of Lune.
Photo: Left winger Sam Cutts is brought down just short of the try line.
Match report by David Pike.