Matlock progressed to the next round of the RFU Intermediate Cup with a narrow 22-21 win at home to Leek.
With both sides having been relegated at the end of last season from Midlands 1 rugby and having enjoyed convincing league wins the previous week a betting man’s money would have been on a close fought encounter.
These two sides have a past history of playing against each other but have not met on the pitch for many years, separated by the geographical East/West split of modern day Midlands league rugby, so for both sides the opposition was something of an unknown quantity.
The Matlock squad saw a few changes from the previous week with Harry Boyd coming back in on the wing for the injured Luke Howard and Charlie Jackson returning from injury in the back row.
Fairclough started at fly half in the absence of James Young and Josh Dixey slotted in at full back. James Harrod started in the second row with Chris Atkinson on the bench alongside Harry Morton and Mike Gunter.
The game could not have started worse for the home side as within a minute from kick off Alex Powell was rather harshly shown a yellow card for over aggressive clear out at the ruck.
From the resulting penalty Leek kicked for position and Matlock found themselves on the back foot and having to defend for most of the next ten minutes, but a strong and determined defence propelled everything Leek could throw at them.
Powell returned to the field and Matlock began to show how dangerous they can be with ball in hand however the final execution let them down and a couple of excellent scoring opportunities went begging.
Despite the Leek threequarters being in front of the back foot at most breakdowns the Matlock backs still created problems for the visitors.
The Leek packs obvious strength in the driving maul was becoming evident as the half progressed whereas Matlock’s lighter more mobile pack showed their paces around the field and the support play was excellent.
The game continued to be very even with both sides testing each other’s defences then Matlock suffered a double blow on the half hour mark when within the space of two minutes they lost both wingers Harry Boyd and Alex Powell with hamstring injuries.
This brought Mike Gunter onto the field to replace Boyd and Harry Morton came on at full back with Josh Dixey moving to the wing.
Two minutes later Leek took advantage of a momentary lapse as Matlock reorganised to put the first score on the board following a strong line out catch and drive.
As the half-time whistle approached their lead was increased with a successful penalty kick after a Matlock player was penalised for not rolling away at the ruck.
A few well chosen words at half time from coach Mike Brookes had the desired effect as Matlock attacked immediately off the kick off with good support play from forwards and backs took the home side to just inside the Leek half.
The ball was moved quickly through hands allowing Hooton to put Gunter in the open to use his pace and power to race 40 metres to score a great team try. Morton’s conversion attempt fell short leaving the score at 10-5.
The Matlock backs clearly had the beating of their counterparts and with the forwards also carrying and supporting well it looked like another score would follow. Matlock were on the attack but Morton’s chip through wasn’t communicated and the visitors earned an easy 22 drop out.
Leek then worked their way back up field and a silly penalty in front of the posts gave them an easy opportunity to extend their lead to 13-5.
Matlock regrouped and reacted well and with 60 minutes gone following good approach play Fairclough surged through a gap on the Leek 22, brushed off the next tackler and went round under the posts for a great individual score. Morton added the extras and at 13-12 it was still anyone’s game.
Straight from the kick off Matlock captain Tim Taylor picked up a yellow card for no arms in the tackle which played right into Leeks hands.
They kicked for the corner and the Matlock pack, being a man short, were unable to stop the driving maul and Leek crossed for an unconverted try to increase their lead 12-18.
Again Matlock reacted brilliantly believing the game was still there to be won. From just inside the Matlock half Fairclough put a superb kick into the corner and with an excellent follow up the Leek fullback could only gather the ball and step into touch giving Matlock the 5 metre line out.
A rehearsed line out move saw a throw to the front and a pass back to John Statham who was stopped just short of the line. Matlock continued to pick and go until Ashley Statham used his power to force his way over for the score.
Morton’s conversion attempt was short but again there was just one point between the sides 17-18.
With only 9 minutes left on the clock there was all to play for and Matlock began to look the stronger side as Leek relied heavily on their main weapon, the driving maul, to slow the game down and eat up the minutes.
Matlock upped their intensity at the breakdown but some over-zealous clearing out at the ruck saw Tom Wright pick up Matlock’s third yellow card just as Tim Taylor’s bin time was up. From the ensuing penalty Leek again went for field position and were awarded another kickable penalty which they took to take the score to 17-21 in their favour with only 4 minutes remaining. Leek now thought they had the game sown up but Matlock had other ideas and attacked again with strong carries by Mike Allen and the fleet footed Hooton putting pressure on the Leek defence.
Leek transgressed at the breakdown and Morton put a superb kick into the corner for one last push. The lineout was clean but Matlock’s drive to the line was brought down illegally.
A quick tap saw Leek transgress again and Morton took another quick tap which was moved quickly to Josh Dixey who’s balletic dive saw him touch down brilliantly right in the corner with only one minute to go.
Matlock had the lead for the first time at 22-21 and as Morton cleverly used up the full minute on the kick he was very unlucky to see his conversion attempt bounce back off the cross bar.
The referee then blew the final whistle and Matlock had sealed the narrowest but most satisfying of victories in what was an enthralling game of rugby.
Both sides had given their all throughout the 80 minutes and as the score suggests there was little to choose between the two sides.
This was a great result for Matlock especially considering they had to play 30 minutes of the game with only 14 men.
The number of yellow cards is a concern and the boys need to work on their individual discipline and address the areas of the game where these are being picked up.