Stoke 15 Stratford 29
Midlands One West
STRATFORD returned to winning ways after two successive defeats with a hard earned success in Staffordshire which lifted them into fourth place.
On what was a bitterly cold and grey day, it was touch and go whether the visitors would have a scrum-half due to travel problems, but fortunately Matt Newman made it just in time thanks to Marcus Taxis.
Stratford kicked off with the advantage of the slope and Stoke immediately knocked-on in what was going to be a regular feature of their game.
The Stratford scrum was strong and the visitors were soon pressing close to the Stoke line. Winning a second scrum, Newman picked up at the back and darted for the line with winger Callum Cook in support.
A sweetly timed pass put Cook clear into the left corner to open the scoring with less than five minutes on the clock. Fly-half Jack Young judged the breeze perfectly for the extra points and the visitors were 7-0 up.
Ten minutes later Stratford were pressing hard on the Stoke line but fierce defence kept them out despite numerous attempts.
Eventually Stoke managed to steal possession and clear to the twenty-two and from the Stratford lineout the ball was mauled back towards the Stoke line despite the desperate defence.
The inevitable try was only prevented by illegal play and the referee awarded a penalty try to Stratford and a yellow card to Stoke. The conversion by Young was a formality and the visitors led 14-0.
Stoke attacked hard despite being a man down but Stratford defended well until Stoke knocked-on. Good ball from the scrum gave centre Andy Conway an opportunity to break through the defensive line and put Stoke on the back foot.
The ball quickly went wide where winger Dan Whitby sprinted from a good 30 metres out, breaking two tackles in the process, for a try in the right-hand corner to move the score on to 19-0.
Stoke wasted a couple of good opportunities through ball-handling errors before eventually getting on the scoreboard.
A Stratford clearing kick went out on the full which gave Stoke a lineout close to the twenty-two. Stoke worked their way close to the Stratford line before spreading the ball wide and a neat final flick pass gave them a try in the corner and a foothold in the game at 19-5.
However, in less than five minutes Stratford opened the gap again. Full lback Jo Cook made a break down the left wing and a sweet offload to Sam Kirby nearly saw the centre score in the corner but he was just bundled into touch.
Stoke won their lineout but the clearing kick was charged down and Stratford gathered the loose ball. The Stoke defence was caught out playing far too narrowly and when the ball was spun out to the right Stratford had players to spare.
Whitby had a far easier run-in for his second try and pushed the score to 24-5 which is how the first half finished.
In the second half it was a far more determined Stoke side now playing with the slope and within a few minutes of the restart some weak tacking by Stratford allowed them to get close to the line before an infringement halted the advance.
The penalty was quickly taken and, with Stratford’s defence in disarray, Stoke scored their second try which went unconverted.
Stoke continued to press hard and Stratford’s penalty count started to climb as they defended but, much to the chagrin of the home supporters, the referee refused to give a yellow card.
Again Stoke managed to create opportunities but failed to capitalise through poor handling. Eventually though the pressure brought rewards when yet another Stratford penalty gave Stoke a lineout deep in the Stratford twenty-two.
A Stoke player took the ball but lost his lifters and crashed to the ground, but the ball went back on the Stoke side. It was picked up by a lock who vaulted through the gap created by the prone player for Stoke’s third try.
The score was now 24-15 and Stoke scented the chance of victory, or at least some bonus points.
Stratford were not finished yet though and put together a lovely passage of play to put the game beyond reach. The ball was worked through the hands left and right before Young made the break through the defence.
One pass later and second-row Dan Hutchings was able to ‘dive’, in the loosest sense of the word, across the line for Stratford’s fifth try.
Stoke battled hard to the end and very nearly scored right at the death but once again managed to lose the ball.
Stratford took the maximum five points while Stoke ended up with nothing. It was a much closer game than the score suggests but the difference was Stratford took their chances while Stoke squandered their own.
Overall it was another strong performance from the Black & Whites, especially after the disappointment of two previous losses at home.
Stratford have another away match on Saturday at Worcester.