Shipston were edged out in a brilliant game of rugby on Saturday by high flying Witney RFC, who cemented their place at the top of the table and maintained their unbeaten start to the season - but only just!
Having won the toss, Shipston elected to play up hill for the first half and were soon under pressure from a huge Witney pack of forwards, who carried the ball relentlessly and really set the tempo for what was to come all afternoon. The Shipston defence, as it has been all year so far, was outstanding from the offset and this forced Witney into some clever kicking options and different angles of attack. The back row of Aaron Neal, George Cowper and Alex Hammond were very quick off the line and chopped down the big runners all afternoon, frustrating Witney at the breakdown and slowing down their ball.
When the Rams had possession in the first half they were slightly frantic and chose a couple of poor kicking options to hand the ball straight back to the visitors. This wasteful possession and territory allowed Witney to score the opening try of the afternoon, as they shifted the ball quickly across the park and managed to sneak in at the corner. The missed conversion left the score at 0-5.
Witney's second of the afternoon came from a very clever kick over the top. Once again the Shipston defence was unrelenting and the Witney fly half decided to try a little chip over the top towards the right hand touchline. With the winger and Shipston full back, Tobi Faulkner converging on the ball, the bounce was extremely king to the Witney wing and he was able to gather and touch down for the second try of the game. The conversion this time was successful to give the visitors a 0-12 lead with 20 minutes played.
The rest of the half belonged to Shipston, who upped the pressure and began to string so phases together with ball in hand. Despite the obvious size advantage the Witney forwards enjoyed, it was the Shipston pack that began to assert some dominance at the set piece, winning their scrums well and shoving the opposition forwards back with some well constructed driving mauls. The pressure was beginning to tell on Witney, who started giving away a number of penalties in dangerous positions on the park. The Rams elected to go for the corner rather than take the option of the 3 points and the decision was vindicated as the forwards worked their way towards the try line. The maul was brought down well but the Shipston pack picked close to the ruck and skipper Matt Corby was able to crash over for the first Rams' score of the afternoon, 5-12 to Witney.
The second try was soon to follow for Shipston after some excellent build up play. The forwards were recycling well and the midfield of Rob James, Tom Corby and Harry Jackson were beginning to make holes in the Witney defence. The ball was spun out wide to Tobi Faulkner on the left wing, who had managed to get outside the winger and he was then able to draw the full back and give a well timed pass to Matt Daniells in support to go over for the second try. The conversion from out wide was kicked by Rob James and that meant the scores were all tied up at 12-12.
There were few chances left before the half time whistle and so the sides could not be separated as they went into the break.
Shipston started the second half very brightly playing down the hill and quickly found themselves deep into Witney territory. They were stringing some lovely phases together but just couldn't find the final pass to break through and claim another score. It must be said that the discipline of both teams was exemplary in the second half, in the face of plenty of pressure, so this enabled the defenses to hold firm for most of the half.
At times the Rams were guilty of playing a little too much in their own half, when the option to kick and play territory would've been preferred, but for the most part it was a high quality half of rugby from both teams. Genuine chances were few and far between as both teams worked tirelessly without the ball and as time was drawing in on the encounter the sides still couldn't be separated.
Unfortunately for the Rams they lost influential second row, Will Cowper midway through the half with a fracture to the foot, so we wish him well in his recovery. This of course meant a reshuffle was required and Leo Brice filled the void excellently, carrying the ball strongly and winning lineouts a plenty.
With only 3 minutes left on the clock Witney had possession and were pushing hard for the next score. The Rams were throwing everything into their defensive efforts and were hoping for a Witney error to regain possession of the ball themselves. The visitors however showed all the composure that has lifted them to the top of the league this year and looked very comfortable with the ball in hand. After a relentless number of phases they managed to work a slight overlap on the right hand side and some good hands enabled them to go over in the corner for their third try of the match! The missed conversion gave them a 12-17 lead and the kick off was to prove the last play of the game.
Shipston tried valiantly to regather possession but were unsuccessful and after a few phases of Witney trying to go for the fourth, bonus point try, they decided better of it and hoofed the ball off the park to bring the game to a close. The league leaders were victorious and maintained their unbeaten start to the season, 12-17.
Despite defeat for the Rams it was a game that they should all be very proud of. They pushed the runaway league leaders extremely close and proved once again that they are quite at home mixing it with the top sides in the division. The back row were absolutely outstanding all afternoon and the back line were operated very well in both attack and defence. The MOTM was awarded to Matt Corby but in truth it should've been given to the whole squad. It was a brilliant team effort and it was certainly a very good spectacle for the crowd, which once again was brimming with both home and travelling support.
The Rams travel away to Marlow RFC next weekend (14th) in what is the last round of fixtures before the Christmas break, sitting comfortably in third place in the league.
I'd also like to mention the fact that as a club, we were in a position to field 3 senior sides on the same day for the first time in a generation. Unfortunately we were unable to find an opposition for the 3rd XV, but the fact that we were even in a position to be able to field 3 sides is something that everybody involved in the club should be extremely proud of.