RUGBY UNION: League leaders hit back for Spalding's first home defeat
With Spalding on an unbeaten home run and Nottingham Casuals having won all their league matches, there was a level of expectation that this would be a first-class clash between two teams who like to play fast attacking rugby.
Coach George Reid's team selection was a relatively easy affair as he looked for a pack of forwards who would not only hold their own in the scrum, but be mobile to counter Casuals' running and offloading game.
With this in mind Ryan Chappell was selected at lock alongside Jordan Templar. Young prop Harry Cole retained his place up front with Will Shields at openside flanker for his speed around the park and to the breakdown.
From the kick-off by fly-half Willis Ingleby, Spalding immediately pinned Casuals back deep in their half with the backs - led by captain Dan Adams - closing down space and shutting out options to run with ball.
Casuals were soon gaining territory but Spalding’s counter rucking was impressive, led by Ash Anker, and within the first quarter two turnovers were won by Spalding and the visitors were penalised for holding on.
With 25 minutes of exciting and competitive rugby played, the referee unfortunately intervened.
Spalding’s hooker John Barrett was attempting to exit a ruck, following play, with a Casuals player lying on the floor, illegally hanging onto his leg.
In attempting to break free, the referee judged Barrett to have stamped on the Casuals player and issued a red card. Most observers, at best, thought either a yellow card or a penalty would have been the appropriate sanction.
With a man down and 55 minutes to play, Spalding were facing a daunting task ahead.
What happened next took the opposition by complete surprise.
Spalding, playing with ball in hand, found Ed Booth on the ring wing near the half way line with no room. Somehow, Booth squeezed past the first tackler with the sideline inches away and then turned on the accelerator. He beat a second defender, then a third and cut back inside to beat the last man for an outstanding try.
With this encouragement Spalding were making breaks all over the field but the final pass was not going to hand.
At the breakdown, Spalding were again challenging - causing disruption to Casuals' possession and further turnovers won.
Casuals lost their number eight to a yellow card and with the half-time whistle, the visitors retreated to the changing rooms for a dressing down by their coach.
Within minutes of the restart, the referee again issued a yellow card to Templar but this further loss of a player did not stop Spalding with Chappell's speed and strength always making inroads and combining well with Harry Sharman.
Spalding turned possession within Casuals' five-metre area into points as Cole drove through defenders to touch down for a 10-point lead.
A team is generally most vulnerable immediately after scoring and Casuals opened their account as they ran in their first try thanks to perhaps a lapse in concentration and missed tackles.
Matt Heaton came off the bench for his first-team debut in the front row, replacing Kev Hudson with Sam Forrest also replacing Tom Wilson at outside centre.
The referee produced his yellow card again, this time for Casuals' number 12.
With Spalding starting to tire following all their first-half efforts with a man down, Casuals found room for their speed merchants - claiming their second try to go two points clear with 15 minutes remaining on the clock.
Sharman was on the wrong end of a further refereeing decision.
Casuals' forwards were starting to make breaks and Sharman, tackling back, went to ground with the away player who laid the ball back.
Crucially no ruck was established at the breakdown. Spotting this, Sharman dived on the available ball, securing possession, but received a yellow card.
Now deprived of two forwards, Casuals were exerting pressure in the scrums with Spalding going backwards at pace and a succession of collapsed scrums could not stop the visitors claiming their third try.
During the second half, Spalding’s outstanding player was young Conall Mason at full-back.
Time and again his last-man tackling invariably downed his man. When a relieving kick was required, his boot never failed to find touch or distance and at the end of the game was voted Spalding’s man of the match.
Experienced Rob Lucas marked his return to the first-team duties from a long-term knee injury, replacing Ben Shields at scrum-half.
Another error of judgement by the referee brought further problems for Spalding.
Casuals knocked on and Spalding hacked the ball forward about 10 metres with Casuals regaining possession. A simple decision of no advantage for the referee, with a scrum in Spalding’s favour, but play was allowed to continue to Spalding’s dismay and with an immediate overload advantage out wide, Casuals secured their bonus point win.
The standard of play in the first 25 minutes by both teams was outstanding as a contest.
However, on the day, the referee did not seem to be in tune with managing the game for the benefit of the players which had a material impact.
What shone was Spalding’s spirit in adversity, gaining a 10-point advantage over the league leaders with only 14 players on the pitch and had them rocking, unable to handle the attacking play.