Saturday 1st. December 2018
Northern Premier League
Wilmslow 18 – 36 Ilkley
As the game entered its final quarter, Wilmslow were hanging on to a slender 18 – 17 lead. The rugby produced by the Wolves had arguably been their best sixty minutes of their season thus far.It hadn't been particularly pretty or expansive but there had been fewer unforced errors and pragmatically, they had settled for a pair of penalty goals when the opportunities had come their way, instead of going for more ambitious ploys. But they faded badly in the face of a fierce onslaught as the visitors ratcheted up the intensity of their game in the final twenty five minutes. As the pressure increased, the Wolves were unable to retain possession of what little ball they were still winning. The penalty count for infringements at the breakdown, particularly, soared against them and, as we have seen before this season, their opponents were able to take full advantage. Once they had got the ball, they were tenacious in keeping hold of it as they created three more good tries to take the match out of Wilmslow's reach.
This was the first time that these two sides had ever met. Ilkley had come into this division in 2015/16 and in the three seasons following had achieved a mid table finish. It seems likely that they will do the same again this season. They have also shown that it is perfectly possible for a resolutely amateur club to compete and survive at this level, despite the attention of scouts from higher ranking clubs in their vicinity. Amateur clubs are always vulnerable to their better players being targeted with silver and gold and, of course, when rugby doesn't pay the wages, work priorities have to take precedence. Nevertheless, Ilkley have managed to retain a sufficient pipeline of players coming through to replace those leaving for whatever reasons and to stay competitive.
Wilmslow operate in a similar environment but still have some way to go to reach the same level as the best amateur sides. Many of their players have work commitments that prevent them from always being available either for matches or training and the departure of a number of good players to the South for career reasons in the last two seasons has had a debilitating effect. With too few locally based players to select from, the club is forced to call on students and others from afar to come back on match days. They're all Wilmslow boys and proven performers but it's very rare for the whole squad to all train together and it shows when you compare the Wolves organisation and fluency against other sides in this league.
When push came to shove in this game, the Wolves just didn't have what it takes to hold on. Handling, passing and tackling errors crept in, players got isolated, tackled and penalised for holding on when the necessary support wasn't there. They then got penalised again for illegally preventing their opponents from recycling the ball. Close to the set piece, they are rarely penalised but wider out in open play they just don't get players to the breakdown as quickly as their opponents and the outcome is always the same.
The Wolves had the better of the early plays. They soon had a lineout on the Ilkley line but couldn't turn it into points. Ilkley's scrum half was harshly yellow carded as his boot unintentionally caught Mike Clifford attempting a charge down but still the Wolves couldn't make anything of their advantage until MacCallum kicked a penalty awarded for a high tackle after ten minutes. It wasn't until nearly twenty minutes had been played that concerted play by Ilkley released their flanker Pat Power for their opening score.
Immediately, they broke the Wolves defensive line again and this time their left winger Struan Connor was the try scoring beneficiary. Wolves hooker Alex Donaldson then had to leave the fray with a rib injury, flanker Sam Graham moved up to hooker and Danny Kennedy took the open side position. Kennedy is a big authentic back row player and his aggression immediately made a difference. It's a pity that he's not available every week. Two minutes later, MacCallum kicked his second penalty to bring it back to 6 – 12. They were then fortunate to escape when following the restart a loose pass in midfield was hacked on by Ilkley to the Wolves line. Wilmslow managed to get back to clear their lines in the nick of time and then forced a scrum by holding up a static maul. From the subsequent play they were awarded a penalty to the corner from which lock Mike Clifford drove over. Ilkley should really have scored again just before half time after the Wolves failed to exit properly from the restart but their passing went awry, so it was 11 – 12 at the break.
The Wolves then got their noses in front when at the third time of asking, Kennedy scored from a close in lineout. MacCallum converted but that was as good as it got. The Wolves hardly had a sniff of the ball for the remainder of the game. Ilkley's third try came when the Wolves held up a drive from a penalty lineout only for the ball to be recycled to Ilkley's No. 14, J. H. Johnson, who had the space and gas to make no mistake. Their fourth try and Johnson's second also emanated from a penalty and was almost a carbon copy of what we had just witnessed five minutes before. Wilmslow were now forced to chase the game but a combination of handling errors, misplaced kicks and infringements prevented them from adding to their score, when they created some half chances and the visitors just took their chances to score a fifth try from No. 8 Max McKay, which with less than ten minutes to play which put the result beyond doubt and then in the penultimate play of the game they broke out of their own half for a final hurrah, their captain and centre Elliott Morgan being the scorer.
Rick Jones knows as well as anyone the Wolves shortcomings but prefers to accentuate the positives. His side had been competitive for sixty minutes. Will Maslen had made a good stab of it in his first appearance at scrum half. Kennedy had been influential and made his presence felt. All in all, said Jones, it was a game in which we were in with a chance of getting something out of it until the last ten minutes. After recent weeks, that has to be progress.
Photo: Mike Clifford attempts to charge down Blake Morgan’s clearing kick and gets his boot instead.
Match report by David Pike.