Crewe and Nantwich 39 Stratford 22
Midlands One West
A REVAMPED Stratford side gave a decent account of itself in Cheshire on Saturday but could not prevent the hosts from extending their 100 per cent home record in the league this season.
Against a side who have proved a much tougher nut to crack on home soil than they have on their travels, Stratford could really have done with being at full strength, but possibly because of the long distance or the distraction of Christmas shopping the squad was somewhat depleted.
A number of players were not in their usual position and there were a couple of debutants, although there was a welcome return for Florent Vialan on the bench.
Just five minutes into the game C&N took advantage of a clearing kick that failed to find touch and opened the scoring with a try in the right-hand corner.
Stratford played a territorial game and fly-half Simon Brain’s penetrating kicks repeatedly had the opposition on the defensive and after a quarter of an hour the plan worked when a clever grubber through by full back Joe Cook forced C&N to concede a lineout close to their own line.
The forwards took full advantage and with a powerful driving maul forced their way over the line for second row Geoff Dyson to level the score at 5-5.
Brain’s kicks continued to force C&N back and from a defensive lineout the scrambled clearing kick again gave Stratford a lineout in great position. This time C&N stopped the Stratford maul so scrum-half Toby Jones sniped down the short-side for a score in the left-hand corner and moved Stratford into a 10-5 lead.
C&N soon hit back when Stratford were dispossessed in their own twenty-two by a high-tackle that only the referee failed to spot and C&N recovered the loose ball for an easy run-in between the posts which was duly converted to put the hosts 12-10 up.
The next score also went to the home side. Stratford seemed to switch off defensively, possibly because of unfamiliarity, and C&N exploited the opportunity for another try that was converted for a 19-10 lead which was how the half finished.
Just two minutes into the second half and C&N were on the attack again. Luckily for Stratford they squandered a two-man overlap when white-line fever struck and a good tackle on the line kept them out.
They did win a penalty soon afterwards though and kicked the three points to extend their lead and just three minutes later – in a re-run of the first score – a clearing kick from Stratford failed to find touch and C&N countered with a score between the posts. With the score now 29-10, Stratford had a mountain to climb.
Stratford have shown real grit and determination this season and had good field position when Brain drilled a penalty deep into the C&N twenty-two. Once again the lineout worked like clockwork and Stratford mauled towards the line.
The point of pressure was expertly shifted back and forth and this time hooker Mark Hibberd did the honours to score Stratford’s third try. Converted by Brain, the score was a slightly more respectable 29-17.
The second half was long and disjointed with two long stoppages for injury. Stratford centre Sam Joyce was the worst off when he caught a boot in the face during a tackle and sustained several nasty fractures.
C&N extended their lead with a simple penalty but Stratford pressed hard for a fourth try to earn at least a bonus point and almost inevitably it came from a lineout as the pack worked the maul across the line for prop Simon Baldwyn to get his name on the scoresheet.
Just before the final whistle, in the gathering gloom, C&N scored again between the posts but the match and points had already been decided.
The final score was was slightly flattering to the home side as Stratford played well overall but against a big and pacy C&N attack the vulnerabilities of an unsettled side were exposed all too easily.
The second half of the season starts this Saturday with the last game of 2014, at home against third placed Hereford. Tenth placed Stratford only just lost the reverse fixture in September and will be looking for revenge at Pearcecroft. The kick-off is at 2.15pm and is preceded by the 200-club draw and VP lunch.