By NICKI DEVEY
Their third consecutive County Cup and Fourth Title - written by Emma Bassford
In a repeat of the two previous finals, Loughborough RFC U16s hosted defending champions Hinckley in the semi-final. Rain poured all morning, but the match was given the clear and the weather broke for the spectacle that awaited both the travelling and the home support.
It was clear from the off that this game was to be dogged with knock-ons and scrums, such were the conditions. Hinckley kicked off the game through flyhalf Lewis Gardner, nip-and-tuck rugby followed with lots of kicking. The away team conceded a penalty and Loughborough kick to touch. Despite pressure, the home side go through a couple of phases, quickly creating an overlap. The backs exploit the stretched defence to step in and score the first try which was successfully converted to give the home side an early lead 7-0.
Last year’s champions responded well, with pressure from their renowned forward pack earning themselves a penalty. Freddie Grewcock launched the ball to the 10 metre line. Jacob Bassford collected well from the lineout (in a start of a compelling aerial dogfight between the two team’s lineout jumpers) and while Loughborough were able to withstand well, Hinckley’s maul (a key potent weapon in the last two campaigns) splintered off and Ben Deacon finished well. Winger Sam Racklyeft stepped up with a magnificent conversion to even the game.
Hinckley continued the momentum, several pick-and-goes from the forwards set the platform for the backs to spin the ball wide and Racklyeft pulled off a niche finish to extend the lead. Gardner this time attempted the conversion, but in tricky windy conditions, couldn’t add the extra two.
From the kick-off, a mistake from Bassford lead to a Loughborough scrum, however they couldn’t capitalise. The referee deemed openside flanker Dan Johnson to have blocked a defender and the home side kicked to the corner. After securing the ball, the home side again went through the phases quickly and impressively, given the conditions, and soon evened the lead with a try. It couldn’t be converted therefore the score was all square 12-12.
The away side soon responded through a couple of penalty kicks to touch, their maul once again proving problematic for Loughborough to defend. They then kept it through the forwards, and Johnson offloaded to Nathan Horton to power his way over the line at the stroke of halftime. A lead further extended by a good conversion and as the referee blew for halftime, last year’s champions had a 12-19 lead, this was their’s to win.
Last year’s and 2017’s finalist runners-up had other ideas, and after being denied the final twice in tight circumstances, they weren’t going to rollover. They kept the ball through the hands and scored swiftly under the posts. A simple conversion ensued and for the third time in the match, it was all square. The last twice these two Teams had pitched against each other had witnessed tight margins, being devilishly close and this encounter proved to be no different.
The home side had gained considerable momentum from their try and sprang into action and were clever at containing the away side in their own half. Hinckley struggled with discipline and the home side were given the benefit of doubt by the linesman when Frank Burton seemed to have been tackled off the ball. Hinckley successfully sacked the opposition pack before the maul was formed, however one of the forwards broke free and was deemed to have reached the line. This was not converted, but the home side had gained the lead for the first time since scoring the opener.
Hinckley piled on pressure and went through phase after phase of relentless carrying which caused an infringement. For poor discipline throughout the match, the referee had enough and he yellow carded a Loughborough back-rower. Hinckley took the scrum option, but poor passing enabled a turnover. Deflated, the away side made several infringements and suddenly the home team were in the opposition half and the outside center stepped inside Gardner and escaped the clutches of fullback Shaun Hubbard to score in the corner. Despite the failed conversion, Loughborough had a 10-point lead with 8 minutes to go, Hinckley needed to pull a miracle out of the hat.
Hinckley did indeed try their upmost, but everything seemed to go against them, Loughborough made two crucial turnovers in the lineout and kept the ball out of their half, something their counterparts had failed to do throughout the second half. And after a knock-on from Hubbard the ref blew for full-time to the delirium of the home team.
Despite falling so short at the semifinal stage, Hinckley have a lot to be proud of, their recent cup record speaks for itself. This young team has reached 5 consecutive County Cup finals, winning 4, a record that is the envy of teams around not just the county but the Midlands too. This year it just wasn’t to be but there is always 2019/20 !! ?