Friday 29th. November
Wilmslow 7 – 12 Sandbach
Despite sub zero temperatures and threatening swirling mists, a decent crowd, winter mufflers and all, turned out to witness this semi final Cheshire Vase game. Visibility from the touch lines was poor so it was not always possible to see clearly which side was doing what, especially when play was on the far side of the pitch and at the far end. The players though could see well enough and produced a decent enough fast moving game in freezing conditions.
Sandbach have been plying their trade in the Midlands Premier League for several seasons now, a level above Wilmslow who are so far this season's pace setters in North 1 West, a level lower. It was an opportunity, therefore, to assess the difference between a fourth placed level 5 side and one at the higher levels of the grade below. In many respects, it turned out to be 'Déjà Vu'. Last season the Wolves found Level 5 rugby more than they could cope with. The pace of the game was just quicker, the skill levels and athleticism of the players higher. On the evidence of this game, one would conclude that not much has changed and that the chasm between the two levels is as much as ever. Last season though, the Wolves would have shipped a barrel load of points in this kind of game and it would have been out of sight by half time. This time, although well beaten at the end, they were not overrun, the two Sandbach tries arose more from their good play than any careless defensive lapses by Wilmslow, and mathematically it was a contest right to the final whistle. Nevertheless, should the Wolves retain their current league position for the season, they will now be in no doubt, if any ever existed, that they will need to raise their game significantly to do better a second time round at the higher level.
Once again, the Wolves were missing several automatic first choice players that they could have done with but everyone turning out had first team experience and those brought in had being doing well in Wilmslow's table topping second team. For these players though, there would have been a big difference between playing against sides in the North West Intermediate League Division 2 South and one from the Midlands Premier League.
There wasn't much to choose between the sides in the first quarter. Sandbach looked dangerous and fluent when they passed the ball wide whilst Wilmslow made several promising line breaks, which unfortunately just fizzled out when the ball carrier got isolated. A marked difference between the two sides was that Sandbach always seemed to have players running off the ball in support of their ball carrier and their handling was more secure, which, of course, enabled them to retain possession for longer and to build periods of pressure on the Wolves defence.
On the quarter hour, Wilmslow took the lead when they won clean lineout ball in mid field and the ubiquitous Ben Day, playing at No. 14 this week, came in off the wing to break the Sandbach line and a couple of passes later, full back James Coulthurst was powerful enough to hold off the Sandbach tacklers to go in under the posts. It was a smart sequence which would have shown the visitors that the Wolves could play a bit with go forward ball. Unfortunately, they didn't have much more of that for the remaining sixty minutes.
That was quite long enough for Sandbach to get into gear and the longer the game went on the more they forced the Wolves back into their den. To add to their difficulties, the Wolves increasingly fell foul of referee Henry's whistle at the breakdown and the pressure just built. But their defence got stuck in and it wasn't until half time approached that Sandbach were able to create the space on their left wing to reduce the deficit.
Mark Jennings, something of a talisman for the Wolves, had to be replaced at half time and Sandbach then dominated the second half, which was conducted almost exclusively in or around the Wolves twenty two. When the Wolves did get their hands on the ball it was deep in their half, they were rarely able to get beyond halfway and when they did, it wasn't for long as the siege on their line was soon resumed. Almost inevitably the pressure finally told when well into the final quarter Sandbach sucked the Wolves defence in close and created the space out wide again on their left wing for the match winning score. They then only had to control events for the ten minutes or so remaining to run out winners, which they did without allowing the Wolves any real sniff of a chance. In fact, the Wolves were once again stuck back in their twenty two, when the game was brought to a close.
Sandbach were clearly the better side, a good shade faster all around the pitch with the skills and organisation to match but the Wolves had faced up to them for the duration and gave nothing away easily. They can take solace from having restricted Sandbach to just two tries.
Next week, it's back to league business away at Birkenhead Park for a top of the league encounter. They will need to be at full strength, especially in the pack, and in the right frame of mind to get anything from this one.
Match report by David Pike.