Report by Andy Foster
Mansfield travelled to third placed South Leicester perhaps more in hope than expectation on Saturday and for the second time this season, against an excellent South Leicester team, played a full part in producing a thrilling afternoon as both sides contrived to entertain an expectant crowd for the full eighty minutes on what was a glorious spring afternoon.
Coach Steve Shaw, frustrated at losing a further three players on Thursday night, in addition to the much missed Lock Tim Pritchard already sidelined with a back injury, was delighted at how his team performed. Every cloud has a silver lining and the number of injuries paved the way for a return to the blue and white jersey of former Skipper Ben Holmes, who made his first start in a league fixture for over a year after badly breaking his arm. Together with New Zealand bound Tom Calladine and Joe Symcox on the back row they each had an outstanding game, being robust in defence and rumbustious in attack.
Although Mansfield are three places below South Leicester you would have thought the roles were reversed the way the game started. Mansfield produced an onslaught from the first whistle that was reminiscent of the way that South began at Eakring Road. A number of forward drives and several phases of play later the ball found Woollard at Fly Half who executed a lovely cross-field kick for Tom Lowery to race on to and score in the corner after just six minutes. A touchline conversion from Russ Coleman put the visitors in front 7-0.
If anyone thought that was going to open the flood gates then think again. South are an outstanding side and with a tough uncompromising forward pack and skilful backs who always looked threatening whenever they had possession. It took just two minutes for them to reply and the aforementioned forward pack showed their mettle by driving Mansfield back forcing a penalty out of desperate defence. They drove on again and forced their way over and levelled the score with the conversion.
The next twenty minutes almost finished the game off as a competition as South had got their tales up and ran absolutely everything at Mansfield and in a period where Mansfield kept repeating the same mistake of simply kicking the ball to the opposition; they simply kept running it back. Quick recycling of the ball matched by quick hands and feet especially winger Greasley, aided by a sometimes disorganised defence, yielded three tries for the home side during this period and by the end of the second quarter the scoreboard recorded and incredulous 28-10.
However, Mansfield have proved that they deserve to be in this league on a number of occasions this season and this game provided them with another opportunity to make that point again. Russ Coleman broke out from his own half to feed Ryan Hough who crossed the line on the 30 minute mark. Coleman added the conversion and Mansfield finally realised that their kicking strategy wasn’t the way forward.
They started to run the ball and looked like a different side when they did. On the stroke of half time Coleman added a further penalty to his excellent kicking display and the first half finished a promising 28-20 and the blue and whites were back in the game.
Continuing their new approach of running the ball rather than kicking, Mansfield flew out of the blocks again in the second half just as they did in the first and after just two minutes Tom Calladine and Adam Shaw sent the ball out to winger Tom Lowery who, with 40 metres to go and one man to beat, dinked the ball round him and won the foot race to touch down for his second try. Although Coleman missed the conversion he made amends 5 minutes later with a well struck penalty to bring the score to a tantalising 28-28 all.
A smart team knows where their strength lies and they play to it – South did exactly that and their forward pack began to take control. The pressure they bought to bear was immense up front and a series of drives and a couple of penalties ended with a 5 metre scrum and perhaps inevitably they forced a pushover try, which was converted. Despite the onslaught Mansfield kept the home side from scoring until the final play of the game. Impressive defending all round, with Adam Shaw in the thick of it, kept them at bay. Although the South scrum was completely dominant throughout, the visitors kept playing and an Adam Shaw breakout on 34 minutes put Mansfield 50 metres up-field and driving towards the line. Eddy Simmons grabbed the ball and drove through several would be tacklers to cross for the 4th try bonus point.
With the score at 35-33 as we entered injury time it looked as though Mansfield would also earn themselves a losing bonus point until, what appeared to be, the longest penalty advantage ever, yielded another 5 metre scrum. The home side did what they do best and the pressure in the scrum forced another penalty. Predictably they opted for another scrum and their dominance in this area was complete as they drove over and converted, bringing the score to 42-33 ending a superb game of rugby but sadly denying the visitors a richly deserved bonus point.
As previously mentioned Tom Calladine is bound for New Zealand shortly to play rugby down under and has probably played his last game for Mansfield this season. He is being sponsored by Nottingham Rugby Club to further his experience with a view to playing for them next season. It goes without saying that Tom will be sorely missed as he is an integral part of everything that the side does and he has had an outstanding season. The true test of a class player is how much the side misses them when they are not there and the void that Tom will leave is going to be a difficult one to fill. Everyone at Mansfield Rugby Club is very proud to see Tom excel and wishes him every success for his New Zealand odyssey and what that may lead to.
Next week Mansfield are away from home again at Old Northamptonians who provided Manchester with their first league win in three years last Saturday. Follow the action on Twitter @MansfieldRugby.