Launceston 18 Bishop's Stortford 19
Away win in Cornwall gets Stortford's new season off to a great start.
First game of a new season and the anticipated warm welcome, both on and off the field were duly forthcoming from the Cornish patriots of Launceston.
The game started at a fast pace in warm sunshine and, despite an early midfield knock-on, Stortford enjoyed the better of the exchanges, quickly finding the fluency shown in some of the pre-season games. Good interpassing led to a lineout on the Launceston 5 metre line after 9 minutes and Stortford’s no. 6, Steve Ball crashed over off the back of the resultant driving maul. Tom Coleman kicked the conversion for a 7-0 lead and, with his pack achieving a decided edge in the crucial set pieces, the visitors remained on top for most of the half. Launceston defended well, though and, despite losing their 12, Jake Murphy to the sinbin after 16 minutes for an accumulation of team offences at breakdowns, it was his side who registered the next score, via a Kieron Lewitt penalty 28 minutes in for a surprising front row offence at a scrum, following a poor Stortford lineout in their own 22. Stortford soon scored their second try, however, via hooker, Declan Caulfield, who rounded off a spell of excellent flowing rugby starting from Coleman’s clever restart kick and the skipper made no mistake with the conversion to take the score to 3-14. Launceston were lucky not to see their line breached once again, after a series of three penalties conceded at successive scrums in their own 22 and it was hard to see how the fourth scrum crabbing sidewards at a rate of knots did not bring a fourth, probably critical penalty. Instead the home team quickly forced a turnover of the resultant scrappy Stortford ball and broke away to win their own penalty in front of the Stortford posts, which Lewitt again converted. An uncharacteristic penalty miss from a reasonable angle by Coleman just before the halftime whistle saw the score at the break at only 6-14. This barely reflected the superiority, which the visitors had enjoyed for much of the half and the at times excellent rugby they had played, with Launceston’s main tactic being some great, long touchfinds by Lewitt and fullback, Matt Shepherd.
Launceston came out in the second half with predictably newfound energy and resolve but, despite early pressure from the home team, it was Stortford who, after 5 minutes got the first score of the half with a try from Ross Bird. This followed after an excellent break from a ruck by Ball took him from his own 22 to halfway and great support and quick hands from his backs saw the winger with space enough to dive in at the corner. Coleman’s conversion attempt went wide to leave the score at 6-19. The home side now started to get on top, initially exploiting Stortford errors, not all of them forced by Launceston’s increasing pressure in the tackle and at the breakdowns. They repeatedly got themselves into dangerous attacking positions in the Stortford 22, but time and again found their efforts frustrated by tremendous defence. As a result, the scoreboard remained unchanged for almost half an hour, but a big decision by the referee provided a crucial swing in fortunes 27 minutes in, when he yellow-carded Stortford’s impressive outside centre, George Cullen (in for injured Sam Winter). This resulted from what was deemed to be a deliberate knock-on, when the ball went forward as a rush tackle was being made, as the Launceston player simultaneously attempted a quick take and give. Within 5 minutes, the home side had registered its first try as burly substitute centre, Pale Nonu burst through a stretched midfield defence to touch down under the posts. Lewitt’s conversion took the score to 13-19 and his side were clearly lifted by this breakthrough to pile on even more pressure onto an increasingly error-prone Stortford. More sterling defence kept their line intact, but not without the occasional moments of alarm and, eventually an increasingly adventurous home side managed after 41 minutes to pull play first left then right to allow Shepherd to crash over in the corner to take his side within a point of the opposition. Fortunately for Stortford, Lewitt’s conversion attempt flew narrowly wide. As almost 10 minutes of injury time were played, the visitors managed to bring a measure of structure and calm to their play, which had been absent for most of the half and, as a result were able to protect their narrow lead until the very welcome final whistle.
After Stortford conceded a last minute try to lose this fixture last season by a single point, there was a degree of symmetry in this hard-fought win, which, on the overall balance of play was just about deserved - though the home side might well feel that their side’s storming second half deserved slightly more. Their supporters, though will, based on this much improved performance be looking forward to a significantly better season than the last one. The Stortford side, although falling below their new, higher standards on occasions should also be boosted by this hard-fought away victory on Cornish soil – never easy! – and the quality of some of their first half rugby suggests that this season could make them even better to watch than last year.