Pictures by Mike Baker
Midlands 3 West (South)
Rugby St Andrews 8 Dunlop 0
There was little in the way of fluent open play on display at a bleak and wet John Tomalin Way, where the weather and the heavy pitch were not really conducive to fast flowing rugby. Saints did try but colds hands and a greasy ball led to too many spilled or wayward passes. Dunlop, whose route one tactics were eminently suited to the conditions, did not even bother, sticking rigidly to the game plan that has proved successful for them since their relegation at the end of last season. It was not a spectacular encounter but it was tense as Saints more dangerous attack struggled to unlock the meanest defence in the league and build up a more sustainable lead.
The pattern of the game was established in the first quarter. Dunlop’s beefy forwards picked and drove, backed by some astute kicking from their half backs. Saints preferred to work with quick ball and move it wide but execution was poor. Having created a number of half chances they failed to apply the finishing touches. The deadlock was broken after half an hour when Ryan Taylor landed a penalty goal. This was a prelude to a series of promising attacks that had the visitor’s at full stretch. They were lucky to escape unpunished when they went into full panic mode in their own in goal but were reprieved when Saint’s over eagerness cost them a relieving penalty.
It was more of the same after the interval. Dunlop tried to muscle their way through but were constantly thwarted by a robust and all enveloping defence and their own indiscipline as their frustration mounted. A series of penalties enabled Saints to keep them pinned down and they finally managed to get the ball out to the wing where Spencer Brown duly obliged with a long overdue try. Dunlop stepped up the intensity in the final quarter and Saints began to concede penalties. A yellow card to Bryn Jones added to the pressure as the Coventry side laid siege to Saint’s line in the closing minutes without really threatening to cross the whitewash.
It was mission accomplished as far as Saints were concerned as it keeps the up with the other promotion candidates at the half way stage. There are still no clear favourites with six clubs each claiming seven victories and separated by just 6 points.
To date Saints have called on 36 different players for first team duties and some long term unavailabilities amongst the pack in particular remain a concern. The lack of continuity has reduced Saint’s effectiveness in attack. Even though they are still amongst the leading scorers, the 4 try bonuses of earlier in the campaign have become less frequent and these may ultimately prove vital in such a closely contested league.
Coach Craig Jones remains positive in that Saints have already beaten six of the seven main rivals. The damaging narrow losses have been on three of their long trips into the North Midlands and he would expect those to be reversed on home soil. If the second part of the season follows the pattern of the first, promotion may not be decided until the very last game when the six clubs currently in the top half of the table will be in action against each other.
Saints restart their campaign on January 6th when they travel to Manor Park, who sneaked a narrow victory at Rugby, courtesy of a brace of interception tries and some good goal kicking. The Nuneaton side are having a mixed season but seem to be running into form with good wins over Dunlop and Woodrush. There are no easy games at Griff and Coton so Saints will need to be at their disciplined best if they are to gain revenge and remain in the promotion hunt.