Saturday 7th. April 2018
North 1 West
Blackburn 5 – 26 Wilmslow
There was an air of quiet satisfaction in the Wilmslow camp after this one. Players and supporters alike knew that they had rarely seen the Wolves play quite as well as they did in this critical fixture at Blackburn. Not only did they play like a side that would be capable of holding its own at the next level but they also played as though that's where they want to be. If we played like that every week, said coach Rick Jones afterwards, we'd beat every side in this league, home and away, every week!
After such a good all-round team performance to which all the players contributed, one is reluctant to pick anyone out, nevertheless, mention has to be made of scrum half Sean Street, whose play has made the difference in recent weeks. At Northwich four weeks ago, his try in the last play of the game turned a losing situation into a bonus point win. Against Warrington last week he scored at the death to give the Wolves another five point win and here at Blackburn he crossed twice, his second try just on full time giving the Wolves another five league points. This result leaves Wilmslow in third place with a game in hand behind Northwich and the only side left who could conceivably overhaul them to finish in second place for a play off match to go up into next season's Northern Premier League.
Blackburn started this match one point ahead of Wilmslow. For much of the season they had looked like promotion contenders but in recent weeks had lost ground with losses away from home at this season's league winners Vale of Lune, Waterloo and Carlisle. This was their last chance to stay in the race but on the day, they were outplayed by the Wolves for the whole duration of the game and couldn't have any complaints at the outcome. Only in the set piece was there a hint early on that they might have the edge but by the end the Wolves were their equal even in this department.
The Wolves started well, retaining possession for several minutes before they got penalised at the breakdown. Once again, they had patiently probed the Blackburn defences, protected the ball in the tackle and passed and handled it sensibly. Apart from a short spell in the second half, they retained this discipline throughout.
Blackburn's first attack ended with a turnover in the Wolves twenty two. Then, on the quarter hour, Wolves centre George Witham injected a bit of pace and venom into the Wolves midfield play with a piercing run to disrupt the Blackburn defensive line and when the ball was quickly recycled, right winger James Coulthurst found the space to break through and to release Street for the opening score.
The home side soon hit back with their only score of the game. Wilmslow lost possession on their own put in at the scrum in midfield and some good running and enterprising play by the Blackburn backs eventually created space for the extra man, prop Tom Lavelle, to canter through a wide open gap. It was a well worked score which showed what they were capable of.
It was though only short relief for them as before half time, the Wolves won a clean attacking lineout and when the ball was released along the back line, full back Ben Day did what he does so well, timing his run to perfection, taking a flat pass at pace to slice through the defence, as though it were sponge cake, and to score under the posts. How often over the years have we seen Bob MacCallum and Ben Day orchestrate this move to perfection?
The Wolves would have gone further ahead shortly just after half time if referee Bygrave hadn't cut play short because of what could have been, but fortunately turned out not to have been, a nasty injury to a Blackburn defender as he went in to tackle Wolves left winger Will Maslen as he was bearing down on their try line. When the game restarted he Wolves couldn't make anything of the position and another chance went begging soon after when the referee blew to stop a skirmish, of the kind that rugby players so enjoy, amongst some of the forwards. The third try though followed soon after when Alex Taylor broke from No. 8 at the base of a close in scrum and after several drives second row Max Wortley got the touchdown. The Wolves then had the better of the stalemate in the final quarter and the game was already well won with time running out when Street, alert as ever, took an inside pass and set off through the gap for the final score.
Rick Jones was well pleased with his side's performance and, in truth, there wasn't much to find fault with. After a few early wobbles the scrum had stabilised, Adam Hewitt, Max Wortley and Seb Pemberton were masters in the lineout and the rest of the pack, with hooker Alex Donaldson prominent in just about every phase, gave better than it got around the field. Ethan Harding stood out in the centre and there were good moments from Witham, Maslen and Coulthurst. There was one head on try saving tackle from full back Day in the second half that stood out but really there were only a handful of line breaks by the home side in the face of a stubborn Wolves defence. This again has been a feature of their play in recent weeks.
Jones now has to prepare a side for next week's home game against near neighbours Manchester. They've probably done enough to avoid relegation but they still need a win in their last game to be absolutely certain. They will remember that they saw off the Wolves at their place in January and will come to The Memorial Ground believing that they can pull it off again. The Wolves, of course, just have to win their last three games. They can't afford any lapses as they attempt to finish in second place.
Match report by David Pike.