Shipston kept their chances of promotion alive with victory over Alcester in a quality encounter where both sides played some excellent attacking rugby. After a poor and humbling performance away to the visitors when they last met, the Rams were desperate to make up for their lackluster display and get a result to keep their promotion push going. With some big performances and wins already this season, Alcester had already proven that they were a worthy match for any team in the division and again it proved on Saturday, with both sides throwing everything at each other in a bruising encounter.
It was the Rams that got off to the brightest start, playing at a good pace and pressing Alcester deep into their own half. After a number of phases and good ball retention, Shipston were awarded a penalty in front of the posts and Sam Cooper stepped up and slotted it over to get the first points of the game and give the home side a 3-0 lead early on.
It remained 3-0 for the majority of the half as both sides cancelled each other out with strong defensive displays. Alcester were keen to spread the ball wide and were able to get around the narrow Shipston defence on a couple of occasions, but luckily for the Rams their covering defence was up to the task and they managed to hold firm and keep the visitors pointless throughout the first period.
It would be Shipston who would get the second score of the afternoon, following a brilliant break in the middle of the park by the returning Dan Taylor. A strong hand-off enabled him to shrug off the defender and he made ground into the Alcester half. With the visitors' fullback approaching to make the tackle, he spun the ball to the supporting Tobi Faulkner, who was able to gallop clear and score the first try of the game. Another successful kick from Cooper, who was faultless from the tee all afternoon, gave the Rams a 10-0 lead at the break.
More of the same ensued in the second half, with both sides retaining possession well and putting pressure on the defences. After a period of sustained attack in the Shipston half, Alcester were awarded a penalty and kicked to touch for a lineout five metres from the try line. A driving maul was set up and the visitors shunted their way towards the line, with their skipper diving over to claim their first try of the afternoon. The conversion was successful and Alcester had narrowed the gap to 3 points with the scores at 10-7.
Another penalty shortly after from Cooper pushed the hosts out to 13 points but the game was still finely poised. Shipston then had one of their best periods of the match, playing some excellent running rugby and keeping Alcester pinned down in their own half with a clever kicking game. Harry Barnard had entered the fray and was carrying the ball strongly along with the ever willing Leo Brice and Alex Hammond and this gave the Rams real momentum as they worked their way up field.
Much to Alcester's great credit they managed to repel Shipston's advances for a number of phases, but the pressure eventually told on the visitors and Harry Clark was able to race up the left wing and dive into the corner to score Shipston's second try of the match. Cooper again was successful with the conversion despite it hugging the left touch line.
It was now Alcester's turn to throw the kitchen sink at the Rams' and they came storming back into the contest with some hard running lines and excellent support play. It looked for all money that they would make the most of the opportunity to get back onto the scoreboard, but some huge defensive displays from Dan Taylor and Tommy Barry in the centres, as well as the likes of George Minogue and the Shipston back row kept Alcester at bay. It was in fact Shipston that would score the next points and push the match beyond the reach of the visitors. A third Cooper penalty widened the gap between the two sides to 20-7 with only 3 minutes left on the clock.
Again Alcester came firing back however and were determined to grab something from the match in the dying minutes. They ran a number of phases and pushed Shipston back deep into their own half, with the weary bodies slowly beginning to buckle. With the last play of the match they pressed for one last effort and were rewarded with their second try of the match, as their big second row crashed through a couple of Shipston tacklers to fall over the line underneath the posts. The conversion was made and this cut the gap to 6 points and gained Alcester a deserved losing bonus point for their part in a thrilling encounter.
It was an afternoon involving some huge collisions and some excellent rugby in front of a partisan home crowd and huge credit must got to both sides who played with a real intent all afternoon. The win keeps up Shipston's hopes of promotion from the division and widens the gap between the two sides to 9 points with just 3 games to play.
There were a number of standout performances from the home side this week, with the likes of George Minogue, Dan Taylor, Tobi Faulkner and the whole of the back row putting in brilliant displays. The MOTM this week however must go to Tommy Barry. He was clinical and effective in attack all afternoon and was also imperious and outstanding in defence, leading the line with some huge collisions and getting Shipston back onto the front foot in crucial areas.
A big thank you goes to everybody that made the effort to come down and support this week and an extra thank you goes to John Barnard, who was up the club twice in the week with his pump to clear the surface water from the pitch and get it playable. Without his efforts the game simply wouldn't have gone ahead.
The Rams travel away to Bromyard next Saturday, looking to keep up their momentum in the final stages of what's been a bruising and enthralling season.