Saturday 27th January 2024, Ilkley RFC vs Pontefract RUFC, Venue: Stacks Field, Ilkley, Result: Ilkley 25pts, Pontefract 3 pts
With eight enforced changes to the ILKLEY team that had suffered two narrow defeats at the hands of basement clubs Sandal (h) and Scunthorpe (a), the ne’ersayers in the Stacks Field clubroom (of which this reporter was one) were downbeat about prospects for this encounter with an unpredictable but big Pontefract side. A result was hugely important for both sides, Pontefract to stay in touch with the bottom three and ILKLEY to pull away from the five clubs below them in this hugely competitive league.
The coaching team of Rhys Morgan and Andrew Clithero had to scrabble together a side and then motivate it to believe a victory was achievable without the eight absentees in their number.
The sun finally revealed its whereabouts, it hadn’t rained since Wednesday, the temperature was a balmy 10 degrees and the groundstaff had produced a pitch worthy of this big match which was attended by club sponsors for a splendid pre-match lunch and a large crowd praying for what, to many, would be a miracle.
The changes were to prove a catalyst for a great performance which by any measure exceeded expectations.
JH Johnson interrupted a family birthday celebration in the Lakes to take up his old slot on the wing, Will Marlow was on the other wing. Harry Harrison made a welcome return at centre. Veteran Eddie Brown took the number 10 shirt. Ben Walker switched to full back. In the forwards Ollie Dennis made his first start in the second row and Adam Booth returned at number 8. Stephen Costello made a seasonal return on the bench.
The match couldn’t have had a better start for the home supporters. An ILKLEY scrum was won on the left of the Pontefract 10 metre line. The ball was brilliantly wizzed out wide at lightning speed for Jordan Cummins to crash over for a great opening try.
From the restart Will Marlow gathered an Archie Elgood box kick and once again like quicksilver the ball was spun out wide for JH Johnson to put Ben Walker in for a second try both within the first five minutes. Both conversions were wide but 10-0 after 5 minutes was just the ticket.
Inevitably the game became tighter but the running of Harrison, Marlow and Walker was dazzling, amply aided and abetted by Elgood and the faultless Eddie Brown.
A great burst from Walker had Pontefract chasing shadows until two players tackled him coming from opposite directions. There was a shuddering clash of heads causing both to leave the field. Referee Mr Adam Robson, effective, positive and fair throughout was quickly on the case. Full marks to him.
Pontefract pushed ILKLEY off the resulting scrum and were rewarded with a penalty which was successfully despatched for the visitors’ solitary 3 points of the match.
15 minutes played. The score 10-3.
The Dalesmen didn’t let up with the forwards getting in on the act with some amazing jackals and turnovers and indeed making the best of a difficult day at scrum time.
Of course they had some serious defending to do too, and how well they did that.
Pontefract had a 5 metre scrum. Three times their big lads drove at the ILKLEY line. Three times they were repelled, the last thrust was unceremoniously bundled into touch via the corner flag.
Stephen Costello and Rob Sigsworth were called into action and eventually the threat was snuffed out.
Frustrated at their failure to cross the whitewash Pontefract were penalised for backchat. Two penalties later and the Dalesmen had a lineout in Pontefract’s half. With a “free ball” Elgood threw long to find his fly half, Harrison added some vital metres before feeding Costello with the tireless skipper Joe Lowes on his shoulder to bag ILKLEY’s third try under the posts. Brown’s conversion was good. 17-3. Seven minutes to the interval.
Half time came with the packed stands buzzing. The message from the coaches would surely be, more of the same please.
A red kite made a cursory flight over Stacks Field just to check the men in red below were doing the business.
And so it was. The excellent Mr Robson blew for the restart. Pontefract went close but were hunted down 5 metres out and coughed up a penalty. Johnson returned the compliment going close himself. The tackle of the day was by Pontefract on Walker but Walker is made of sterner stuff and was up and back in the fray. From a scrum on half way he, Harrison and the reborn, irrepressible Costello took the Dalesmen to Pontefract’s 5 metre line. A knock on in the tackle spoiled that foray but ILKLEY returned to the 22 with a vengeance. Johnson found himself with ball in hand 10 metres out and had to back those ageing legs once more to crash over for ILKLEY’s bonus point try. 22-3.
This seemed to suck the breath and blood from Pontefract and whilst there was still plenty of the Morgan/Clithero axis’ defensive tactics to be called on, it always seemed ILKLEY were the more likely to score again. Charlie Head made a proper hooker’s break going fully 30 metres before being tackled as his pass was knocked down by the defender. However it was to be 10 minutes to the end that Brown was presented with a straightforward (does straightforward exist in goal kicking?) kick at goal to make the final score a highly creditable 25 points to 3.
This was a triumph for the coaching team, both in selection and moreso in motivation but no matter how much is done in preparing the side and those crucial decisions during play, it is the eighteen guys on the pitch who have to put it all into action. This they did with flair, with spirit, with pure grit and determination combined with an abundance of skills both with ball in hand and in the dark arts of winning the ball to get things going in the first place.
Massive credit to all concerned. Miracles do happen!
This week the Dalesmen travel to table toppers York where an upset would be poetic justice to avenge the last minute loss to the Minstermen in the early season home edition. Kick off is at 2:15 pm.
PS I have well and truly eaten my pre-match mutterings!