Bishop's Stortford First XV 28 Barnes 21
Stortford manage to put the icing on their league-topping season with a hard-won victory against a battling Barnes side, that looked anything but a relegation side.
Stortford picked up where they had left off last week in this match sponsored by Jonny Hey's Westbury Garden Rooms, winning the ball from the opening dropout and going through multiple phases of quick ball to allow Nick Hankin to run a great angle off his wing to take a short pass from Tom Coleman under the posts to canter over for an opening try. League points leader, Tom Banks had no problem in converting to take his side out to an early 7 point lead. Unfortunately, in touching down, the winger tweaked his hamstring and had to be replaced with only 5 minutes of the game gone. Barnes, who needed at least two points to give them a realistic chance of staying up at Level 4, were clearly highly motivated and they swept back onto the attack to force a penalty at a breakdown on the Stortford line, for which Will Roberts was yellow-carded. This delayed by only seconds the equalising score from the visitors, who went straight from the resultant penalty for centre, David Butler to crash over under the posts to give Tom O'Toole an easy conversion. There followed an extended period of stalemate, as Stortford's battering ram of an attack was met by the brick wall that Barnes' determined defence presented. It took a pushover try from a 5 metre scrum scored by evergreen, Mark McCraith after 32 minutes to break the deadlock and Banks' conversion stretched the lead out to 7 points. Stortford came close again a couple of times and were unlucky, right on the break that replacement winger, Ryan Hutler just failed to regather his own clever grubber kick at the Barnes try-line, which would have extended the lead to better reflect the overall balance of play to that point.
The second half started very differently, with Barnes on the front foot, but it was Stortford who, nevertheless, registered the next score with a momentous try by skipper, Tom Coleman, playing his last game for the Club he started with in the Minis and completing 5 years of captaincy of the Firsts. The score was created by a great break in midfield by Steve Ball, who committed the defence so comprehensively that he gave his flyhalf a clear run to the line from 30 yards out.. Banks' conversion stretched the lead to 14 points.
The next 20 minutes, though belonged to a steely Barnes side, who took advantage of some uncharacteristically loose errors from Stortford to demonstrate that they too could pose a real attacking threat with a series of impressive thrusts from both backs and forwards, showing considerable skill and cohesion. This produced two converted tries after 63 and 68 minutes to Butler and Robbie Martey to level the scores, at which stage a number of Stortford players were starting to look pretty tired and the visitors were looking to be on top. This is when Stortford's collective character and team spirit really came to the fore, though, as they launched once more onto the offensive. This was again met by some stern defence from Barnes and it took three or four minutes of pressure before a penalty was forced. A quick tap by Tom Banks almost took the forceful scrumhalf to the line, but it took a few more phases before a long pass found Jimmy Rea out on the wing with just enough room to dive in for a try right on the corner. Banks once again stepped up and drilled the tough conversion between the posts to restore a 7 point lead with some 5 minutes to go. Undaunted, Barnes were straight back onto the attack and the home side had to withstand another concerted attack on their line, as the clock ran down, and the final, decisive event of the game came with a tremendous turnover by Steve Ball on the point of full time.
Although not at their fluent best, Stortford showed great character in repelling a strong and determined Barnes side to finish as the winners they have become in this memorable season. For their part, the visitors would surely not have found themselves in their perilous league position, had they produced rugby of this quality earlier in the season and they can surely look forward to a winning season in 2017/8.
The Tees Man of the Match award rightly went to retiring skipper, Tom Coleman, who rose above the high emotion of the occasion to put in a final match-winning performance to the delight of his teammates and the massive, 1664-strong, record-breaking crowd.
Two albums of photos exist for this game. One called 'Pre-match & 1st half' & another entitled '2nd Half - Post match'. This match report only allows one of the albums to be attached to it. The other can be found under the Videos & photos tab of this website.