Another entertaining and physical game at Ford Lane saw Toc H’s 1st XV earn a draw against the ADM Premier Division leaders West Park St Helens.
All things considered, a 23-all draw was probably a fair result. But Toc will rue some missed opportunities and, having conceded early on and fought back to lead 20-10 after an hour, may even feel a little disappointed to only end up with two points.
Winger Rory Gibson slotted a penalty with the last kick of the game to preserve their unbeaten home record – but in hindsight, maybe gambling and going for the win would have served them better.
That said, after playing poorly and losing to Widnes in their last game it was vitally important for Toc to regain confidence and momentum in what is shaping up to be a very tight ADM Premier Division.
West Park are also a very polished side, with silky attacking threats all over pitch. And with Toc missing some key personnel in key positions it was encouraging to see how the debutants stepped up and acclimatised to such a high standard of rugby.
It became quickly apparent that Toc were in for a tough afternoon. The visitors immediately got into their stride and showed through their slick attacking platform why they are top of the league and the most free-scoring side in the division.
Toc defended well early on and were forced to soak up a lot of pressure – a brilliant try-saving tackle from winger Ben Platt was the stand out moment and symbolised the home side’s defensive determination. No team in this league will feel totally comfortable for long periods against this West Park attack, but Toc lived with them for long enough. Frustratingly, it was a lapse in concentration rather than an exceptional piece of attacking play that eventually undid them – but Park’s left winger was given some room in a very tight space and sneaked into the corner.
After an opening blitz, Toc slowly edged themselves into the game and for most of the rest of the first half dominated possession and the territory. The set-piece battle became more even and the home side looked a real threat with ball in hand. Their smart and efficient work at the breakdown was generating quick ball and causing the visitors some problems.
Given the changes, Didsbury were much more direct than usual but generated some good front-foot ball thanks to heavy carrying from Will Rayner, Jonny Naish, Jonathan Beardmore and the excellent Josh Hearn. The intellect and class of Andy Alexander and James Howarth also ensured there was a steady stream of pristine lineout ball from which the backs could attack. Didsbury’s attack, generally, looked balanced and they were competing ferociously in every area of the game.
It was the hard-working captain who got them back in it. Harry Rigby crashed over in the corner from close range before centre Tom Bunn did exactly the same thing in front of the posts. The missed conversion would prove costly. Gibson did add a further three points before the break after West Park gave away a slew of penalties on their line. He also crossed himself but was deemed to have been held up. Toc were also held up on another occasion as they hammered away at around the half-hour mark. The visitors were perhaps fortunate to keep 15 players on the pitch during that period of pressure and they also took advantage of a couple of very, very timely penalties to clear their lines.
But after weathering the storm, Park showed their class right on the whistle at the end of the first period. After turning the ball over in midfield they moved it to space quickly and a deftly-placed grubber kick from their excellent outside centre unlocked Toc’s hustling defence. It was neatly gathered by their right winger who, with good support inside, expertly picked off the covering defence.
It was undoubtedly the try of the game and it provided a timely reminder of just how dangerous Park could be. Toc have been on the end of some great tries by teams this season – notably against Liverpool St Helens and Oldham – but this one was the best of the lot. The timing of it was also a bitter blow. For half an hour Toc had muscled their way into the game and got some momentum, so a meagre three point lead at half-time (13-10) didn’t feel as if it was a just reward for the quality they had showed. Clearly, this game was going to be tight.
Toc got going early in the second half. By now Park’s pace of play had slowed a bit and it looked as if the home side would eventually get on top. Prop Josh Hearn hit a quality line from close range - after another sustained barrage on the visitors’ line - to get Toc’s third try of the game. Gibson added the extras. Leading at 20 points to 10, Toc once again found themselves camped in the West Park 22.
Agonisingly, they couldn’t convert at such a crucial moment. In fairness, Park defended that period really well and it set up a nail-biting last quarter, which saw Toc once again under the cosh and defending heroically at times.
Some more excellent attacking play got Park back to within a score. Their centres are good players, well balanced and powerful and as the game opened up they became more and more influential. A tactical change at fly-half also saw the visitors move the ball better and create a bit more in open play. Several half breaks looked threatening. Didsbury’s scramble defence held firm until, predictably, Troublesome 13 eventually finished off a flowing, accurate move in the left corner.
By now both teams were working really hard. Toc started loading up the pressure at the breakdown. Some big tackles were doubled up by some dynamic and aggressive counter-rucking in their own 22 and they looked for all money that they would yield the possession or the penalties they craved. Surprisingly, especially as far as Toc were concerned, the referee saw things the other way and Park’s reliable kicker was in no mood for missing. Twenty-all soon became 20-23 and it looked as if the visitors might have edged it. But Toc had more in the tank.
With two minutes to play they forced a mistake in the opposition half and broke clear down the right flank through Gibson. That set up another stalemate on the visitors’ line. Toc threw everything at them and as their defence scrambled, they also strayed offside.
Advantage. After more big, confrontational carries some space was created on the right - but the effortlessly classy full-back Harry Anderson, superb all day, was made to stretch a little too far for a pass which might have seen him create something in the corner.
That knock-on saw the play brought back and, exhausted and eager not to lose, Toc opted for the three points.
It was a satisfactory end to another cracking game of rugby at Ford Lane.