After England’s success in the World Cup and with them scheduled to play at 3pm on Saturday afternoon, it was agreed by ourselves and Higginshaw to play this weekend’s game on the Friday evening.
Hoping for a slightly cooler temperature than we would have had on the Saturday, the Bolton Mets players were in very high spirits ahead of the game. A strong squad of 20 was selected, and despite Higginshaw being a bit of an unknown quantity we were confident about getting the win.
Leading by example, Captain Rick Ackers opened the scoring after a quick tap penalty caught the Higginshaw defence napping. Having regained a bit of confidence with the boot last week, Stand Off Daryl Devlin added the extra 2 points to give us an early 6-0 advantage.
The Away side had some big players in the middle of the park and they certainly caused us problems with their strong, hard running. On the back of some good forward play, the Higginshaw Winger scored in the corner, however, the referee had to give ‘benefit of the doubt’ to the attacking team despite it looking like the player had knocked on in goal. The successful kick tied the scores at 6 a piece within the opening 10 minutes.
It soon became apparent that this game was going to be a real seesaw battle, with both sides having good spells and bad it would be the team who handled the conditions and occasion the best that would come away victorious. Playing on the Wing Will Bate had plenty of the ball, his quick feet making it difficult for the Higginshaw defenders to stop him. Taking the ball to the line, he was able to bust through an attempted tackle and touchdown just to the right of the uprights, this made it an easy conversion for Devlin and a 12-6 lead for the Mets.
Back came Higginshaw, another large forward charging onto the ball and crashing over the line to level the scores yet again. This was followed up by another try when a neat inside ball allowed the onrushing player a clear run to the line. With both kicks converted, it now put the visitors in front for the first time in the game.
Using his bench to great effect, Head Coach Al Scarbrough brought on debutant Aaron Bell for Chris Highton at Hooker and refreshed the forwards with Tom Crook and Harry Dawber replacing JP Hardman and Steven Harrison. Getting his first touches of the ball at the dummy half position, Aaron immediately became a threat with some slick passing and solo runs, a great prospect for the remainder of the season.
It was now our turn to level the scores, Scrum Half Ste Hickey received the ball 15 metres out before finding Will Bate with a no look pass allowing him to score under the posts. Yet again, Devlin added the extras to make it 18-18 with 5 minutes to play.
With the bit between our teeth we pressed further in the hope of snatching the lead before the break. Causing the opposition problems every time he had the ball, Ste Hickey opted to back himself on the last tackle with a neat little kick and chase. The grubber kick was well weighted and held up perfectly in the in goal area, outpacing the Full Back he dived towards and firmly planted the ball down to secure the four pointer. Making it 4 from 4 on the half time hooter, Devlin gave us a 24-18 advantage at the end of the first period.
More interchanges from the bench followed at the half time interval, Darren Robinson Jnr and Andy Platt getting a breather, whilst Connor Orrell and John Ashton entered the fray, JP Hardmanalso returned at Prop after his rest late in the first half. An injury to Mark Aspinall curtailed his time in the pitch, but for the period of time he was out there he worked very hard. Hopefully, he will be back next weekend but it all depends on how well the injury heals.
Switching off after the break has been an issue for us at times, but encouragement from the side lines helped keep the players mentally prepared. An early try from Will Bate was the result of a delightful bit of inter play down the left flank. It was Ste Hickey again causing the defenders all the problems, a strong run attracting two or three defenders before laying off the pass to Will who ran half the length of the field to score. In doing so he completed his hattrick and increased the gap to 10 points.
On occasion, when in possession Higginshaw did manage to break through our defensive line but when they did they were only met with the solid shoulder of Full Back Gareth Hession. Halting several charges in the second half certainly went a long way to keeping us in front, but Gareth was just as important with ball in hand as he was defensively. Picking up the ball from dummy half, he was able to gain some good yards forward due to his strength and agility. This was backed up by strong runs by Paul Charnock, Rory Biggins and Martyn Mercer, these plays allowing the forwards a breather in the humid conditions.
Our game management impressed many in the second half, being only 10 points up with 20 minutes to go meant the game was far from won, but it was the key players who made sure that everyone stuck to the game plan.
Another impressive sight in the second half were the ball carries from Connor Orrell, receiving the ball deep within his own half on several occasions he managed to make well over 40 metres of gain after evading several would be tacklers.
Those carries helped set the platform for our next try on the hour mark, another solo effort from Ste Hickey saw him run over the opposing Full Back and double his tally for the afternoon. Having missed the previous conversion, Devlin slotted over this one to make it 34-18.
The remainder of the half was a slightly tense affair, we now had a 16 point lead and needed to try our best to keep it that way. Higginshaw on the other hand had to through everything at us to stand any chance of getting anything out of the game. Their big forwards continued to attack down the middle, whilst the Wingers had to wait patiently for the ball to come wide. When they did manage to link up the play between forwards and backs it called for a serious bit of defending for the Mets players. Having to strongly defend our line for back to back sets almost helped us realise that we could see out the game and claim the points, this probably enough to break the spirit of the Higginshaw players.
They did score the final try of the game, another inside ball creating a gap, but it was too little too late for the men from Oldham. The kick did pass through the uprights to reduce the gap back to 10 points but it looks as though we had done enough.
Seconds before the final whistle was due, a penalty was awarded to the Mets for holding down and the choice to kick at goal was taken. Unfortunately, the kick was pushed to the right of the posts and kept the score at 34-24 as the whistle blew.
Praising his players after the game, Al stated how proud he was of their efforts and commitment. Asking for his comments about the performance, he said, “They showed courage, determination, skill in execution, heart, teamwork and most importantly the desire to support each other”. Due to the cool heads and excellent game management, he also added, “this was the most mature performance from the team in my time as Head Coach”. Encouraging signs for the games to come and for future seasons.
Finding himself on the Oppositions Man of the Match shortlist for the second week running, Chris Highton accompanied Ste Hickey in the runners up spots, but it was the hattrick hero Will Bate who topped the tally and took the honours. For his solid display at the back, Full Back Gareth Hession picked up the Top Tackler Award who for him the score line could have been a lot closer.
As the Away fixture versus Higginshaw has previously been postponed twice, and with no available dates to reschedule for a third time the NWML agreed to this fixture being played for double points. That means that the win earns us four points instead of the usual two, as well as lifting us up a place in the table to 7th and only four points off 4th place.
We travel to Whitefield on Saturday 14th July to face Bury Broncos A, the location of our narrow 2 point defeats in both 2016 and 2017. Having defeated the Broncos at Greenhalgh’s Pavilion earlier in the season, we’ll be aiming to do the double over them for the first time in a few years. However, they will obviously be looking to improve on that result and redress the balance, and with their first team not playing we firmly expect to see a different team on the pitch this time around.