Chester 25 v Macclesfield 22
9th September 2017
Chester narrowly squeezed past recently relegated Macclesfield in a closely contested first league fixture of the season at Hare Lane. The afternoon was blustery, with a swirling wind sporadically affecting the kickers, but fortunately the rain stayed away despite several downpours earlier in the day. The home side demonstrated their resilience, eventually overcoming both a potentially disastrous start and a forceful comeback by the visitors.
Two early penalties set Macclesfield up with a lineout deep in the Chester 22. Their pack won the ball at the back and drove into midfield, where they delivered quick ruck ball leaving the home defence far too narrow. Two quick passes to the right gave the Macc right wing the ball in acres of space and he crossed in the corner for an unconverted try.
This unfortunate start appeared ominous, especially in the light of Chester’s defeat away to the league’s other relegated side, Tynedale, the previous Saturday. But appearances were deceptive. Over the next half an hour Chester scored 3 tries and built a substantial lead, playing a patient, structured game. They were generally able to dominate the breakdown area, successfully turning over Macclesfield possession at a series of rucks. A fine kick into the corner by fly half Liam McGovern put Macc under pressure close to their line. They were unable to exit their 22 due to excellent defence by the home pack at two successive lineouts. Following the second, Chester managed a crucial turnover, and built their attack, changing direction four times. Eventually, the carries by centre Freeman Payne and the pack wore down the visitors’ defence, until a break and offload by Mike Craven found full back Sean Green in space. Sean sidestepped the last defender to equalise with an unconverted try. On 16 minutes Sean was involved again, running back a loose Macc clearance. Some strong running by Sean and Andy Bastin then created an opportunity, almost out of nothing, for Freeman to score a try, converted by Liam McGovern, to put Chester in front. Four minutes later Liam added to his tally with a penalty (for a high tackle) making the score 15-5. Ten minutes later the home side repeated the formula which created their first score. Macc were unable to clear their lines, leading to an attacking Chester scrum deep in the visitors’ 22. Strong phase play eventually produced a break by Tom Foden in midfield. The ball was quickly recycled to the left where Ross White was put through a hole to score a converted try that put Chester 22-5 in front.
Now the game took a twist. Following the restart, it was Chester’s turn to be unable to exit their half, and Macc’s to build a well structured attack. From a scrum in midfield they carried the ball through 9 phases, their forwards pounding away at the home line until they crossed for a converted try a few minutes before half time.
In the second half Macclesfield began to produce quicker ruck ball, which they used to put their speedy back three into space, repeating the formula that had worked so well for them in the opening minutes. They also gained a measure of scrum dominance, and were assisted by a lack of line speed in the home defence, which gave the visitors more time to create space. Some last ditch defence, including a couple of great turnovers deep in the Chester 22, managed to keep Macc out until just before the hour mark, when the pressure told. A loose clearing kick was run back, and the speed of Macc’s outside backs created a fine try for their left wing. The conversion brought the score to 22-19.
Momentum was now with the visitors, and they pulled level with 12 minutes left, kicking a penalty following an overthrow at a defensive Chester lineout. Few spectators would have been surprised had they gone on to win, but instead they coughed up a rather soft penalty entering the side of a ruck two minutes later. Liam kicked the goal to put Chester 25-22 in front. In the remaining ten minutes both sides had attacking opportunities. One of Macc’s substitute props crossed for a ‘try’ in the last play of the match, only to be called back for a forward pass.
This was a closely fought encounter that could have gone either way. It had its fair share of early season errors by both sides. For Chester, their ability to create scoring opportunities bodes well, while a more decisive exit strategy and defensive line speed will enhance the margin of victory. The only serious down side was an unfortunate rib injury to Mike Craven in the last few minutes.