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Thursday, 30 October 2014

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Whitehaven’s brave battle against league leaders

WIGTON was an oasis of green in Cumbria, as most other matches went down to the weather.

All things considered, conditions were good, if a little soft underfoot. The main feature of this match was a monumental effort in defence by Whitehaven. Wave after wave of Wigton attacks broke against the flinty cliffs of Whitehaven’s determined tackling.

Wigton dominated territorially with Whitehaven having two forays in the Wigton 22 in the first half, and none in the second. However they could not find the key to unlock this tight defence. There were times when they were careless with the ball and rather pedestrian in possession, but you can only play as well as you are able and Whitehaven deserved the plaudits for disrupting the league leaders’ plans.

That said, while Wigton struggled to win 9-0, with three penalties from Ali Ledingham, they never looked like losing. The home defence was as miserly as ever, but while scores are so tight, there is always a chance for a breakaway try to steal a win, and Wigton looked somewhat nervous as the game went on. We have all seen close games like this lost.

Wigton started on the attack, characteristically going through the phases. Centre Will Miller was staying on his feet well and getting over the gain line. However, the score would not come and a couple of penalties relieved the pressure. Scrum half Scott made good ground from a quick tap, reaching the Wigton 22, but Wigton’s skipper for the day, flanker Andrew Brown, defused the situation with a good turnover.

Wigton had several periods of play in good positions, but there were signs of frustration with the dogged defence as players felt pressure to try something different and tried unsuccessful little chips.

There was a couple of sharp blindside breaks involving Mark Lee and winger Richard Moffatt. Indeed Moffatt looked set to open the scoring but a last ditch tackle frustrated his efforts. Referee Martin Plummer took play back to a penalty to Wigton for offside which Ali Ledingham, playing at full back, slotted over for a slender 3-0 lead.

Whitehaven’s commitment was exemplified by hooker Mark Lancaster. He left the field early on after a tackle on Mark Deans and most people thought that was the end of his afternoon’s play, but he returned to play a prominent part in the scrums, taking several balls against the head during the afternoon.

From the kick off, Wigton second row Mark Deans dropped the ball but made amends shortly afterwards when he tackled his opposite number Callum Rowlandson and stripped him of the ball. The clash of the big beasts on both teams was fascinating. For Whitehaven, Rowlandson is probably the biggest man in Cumbrian rugby and he looked to carry with purpose. He was joined by his fellow second row Gary Dempster, and veteran New Zealander George Suafoa, big units all.

They frequently got over the gain line, but the Wigton defence held firm all day. On the Wigton side Deans and Marrs enjoyed the physical challenge.

Neither side would be totally satisfied with their lineouts. For Whitehaven, the main tactic was ball to Rowlandson at two. There being no lifters able to get him in the air, the lines looked like those of thirty years ago as he stretched to tap down ball. Wigton were missing their main lineout jumper, Atkinson, but by lifting lighter forwards got cleaner ball, but attempts to drive the maul made little progress against the Whitehaven behemoths. McConnell had a chance to level the scores, but missed with a 40-yard penalty effort.

Whitehaven’s flanker Liam Tunstall left the field concussed when he made a courageous tackle on Deans, but caught a knee to the head.

Wigton enjoyed greater possession and fly half Hanabury tried using his boot to kick them into attacking positions, but the defence remained stubborn. Just before half-time Whitehaven used a kick to win a lineout a few yards from the Wigton try line. This was their best position of the match, but an attempt to drive over was bundled into touch.

At halftime, with a 3-0 lead, many home supporters were expecting Whitehaven to fade in the second period, but they sustained their efforts to the end. Although Whitehaven had some ball, they never threatened the Wigton line and the turnover count by both sides was very high.

As the half went on, the main area of action edged closer to the visitors try line, but it was never crossed. Wigton’s frustration was almost tangible as increasing extravagant and ambitious offloads and chips were tried to break the stranglehold of the defence.

Wigton had to reshape when winger Jordan Wood left the field. John Story moved from back row to wing and Peter Dobson came into the pack. The next score came from a penalty when Whitehaven were penalised for a high tackle. Ali Ledingham doubled the lead to 6-0. He missed with another attempt a few minutes later.

Whitehaven continued to soak up the pressure until Hanabury made a clean break from a scrum. He found Deans in support and he in turn passed to scrum half Fergus Ledingham. He looked certain to score but was scragged from behind by a high tackle.

Wigton tapped the penalty but were not able to fashion an opening. However, most play was now in or around the Whitehaven 22.

Wigton had another chance when a clearance kick was shanked into the hands of Moffatt.

Wigton were not as slick as they might have been moving the ball to the opposite wing and Story was bundled into touch by the covering defence.

As Wigton launched another attack, Deans was high tackled in front of the sticks giving Ledingham a simple chance to give Wigton a 9-0 lead just short of the final whistle, and depriving Whitehaven of a bonus point.

The sponsoring farmers voted for David Hanabury as Man of the Match. Whitehaven will feel that every one of their players was a hero. There is no doubt that on the balance of possession and territory, Wigton were the worthy winners, but no one would have begrudged Whitehaven a bonus point for their efforts.

Wigton travel to St Benedicts next week in a rearranged fixture and will be pleased to see Matthew Atkinson back in the side.

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