By Dan Kirby.
Stratford entered the fixture in high spirits having enjoyed a successful pre-season run under the new stewardship of Richard Pepperell with convincing victories over Woodrush and Stowe-on-the-Wold.
Following a nervy start to the game from both sides Barkers found their rhythm fists, winning a penalty in front of the posts on the Stratford 10m which was converted after just three minutes. Immediately from the kick off Stratford found their own flow and began to string phases together. A string of penalties saw Stratford able to march up into the Barkers 22 and after a number of well controlled forward phases, veteran number eight Dave Pritchard crashed over in the corner. A difficult conversion attempt from captain Nath Geekie drifted narrowly wide.
For the next 15 minutes Stratford continued to look menacing whenever they had possession, making the most of the sunny conditions playing with ambition and throwing the ball wide and creating opportunities although a number of times the last pass just failing to go to hand. Barkers responded well and after a number of phases in midfield found some space on the right hand side. Simple hands and hard running converted a four on two and the Barkers fullback was able to walk in untouched. The conversion was successful making the score 10-5 after 25 minutes.
Discipline was an issue for both sides over the course of the game although this first caused problems for barkers when the Coventry side were reduced to 14 after their scrum half was sinbinned for cynical play. Barkers drew first blood during this period with another penalty although this was quickly countered by a wonderful piece of broken filed play created by a Sam Kirby chip and chase which he gathered himself and selflessly passed to flying winger Dan Whitby to cruise in under the posts. Geekie added the extras. Within two minutes Stratford made the extra man pay once more with another broken field counter attack this time seeing former Club Captain Jo Cook show his pace, fly hacking his way to the line to score, again ably converted by Geekie. With both sides back to full compliments the half time whistle saw the score at 13-19 in Stratford’s favour.
Almost immediately after half time Stratford were reduced to 14 when prop James Hancock was sent to the bin for a team offence and the home side made the advantage pay with a great solo effort from their right wing which was expertly converted from wide on the right by the Barkers fly-half. Stratford struck back with a Geekie penalty to keep the visitor’s noses in front.
A well drilled Barkers pack made life difficult for the depleted Stratford forwards. Young prop Liam Vose, a product of the Stratford youth system, came off the bench to make his competitive senior debut in challenging conditions with new signing Harry Barnard also coming on to add some extra bulk to the pack. Stratford defended with great intensity throughout despite being the smaller pack and notable impacts being made by lock Angus Wightman and openside Dan Dunmore. With 15 minutes to go, Stratford hooker Ben Cole was unfortunate to find himself on the wrong side of the referee and was sent to the sin bin for an alleged offence at the ruck. Barkers began to gather come momentum at this point and powerful running from their tight five proved too much to defend for Stratford when a powerful drive from a Barkers lock resulted in a try, this time going unconverted.
Indiscipline once more proved to be Stratford’s undoing when they conceded another penalty in front of their posts which was easily slotted by the Barker’s fly-half once again. This score put the home team six points ahead with just over five minutes to play. The Stratford players contested their kick off well and quickly regathered possession from a loose kick. A number of sustained, quick phases followed and after some nifty interplay on the left flank Dan Whitby scampered home for his second. Geekie’s conversion attempt from a tough angle drifted across the face of the posts.
When Barkers restarted the game there was under a minute to play. Stratford gathered the kick off and executed a couple of good phases before releasing speedster Whitby in search of his hat-trick but alas this was not to be as he ran out of space on the right wing and was bundled into touch to bring about the final whistle, the game ending 28-27. Stratford can take a number of positives away from a game that could easily have played out differently.
Meanwhile Pearcecroft the Straftord 2nd XV were also in action against the same opposition and their fortune was significantly different, running out 97-5 winners to open their Warwickshire Merit League campaign. Outside backs Charlie Powell & Callum Cook and back-row Simon Greenwood all grabbed hat-tricks in the game which saw the black and whites scores 14 tries in total.
Both teams are in action again this week with the 1st XV in their first competitive outing at Pearcecroft against Long Buckby in the National Cup and the 2nd XV making the trip across to Alcester, both kicking off at 1500hrs.