Old Boys triumph in battle at the bottom

Fylde 21 Old Albanian 31

Fylde started this National One basement battle with dash and flair, established a 14-0 lead in the first 10 minutes but fell away badly by the final whistle. Old Albanian battled back, controlled the second third of the match and led by halftime. Fylde took the initiative and the lead with twenty minutes to go but wasted this effort by conceding two late tries to lose their 11th home match of this very difficult season.

The fact that the game was played at all was extraordinary. The Fylde Coast has been blessed this week by being spared the worst of the weather experienced just about everywhere in the UK. There were 24 National League games, all around England, scheduled to take place in Week 24 in the three divisions – only three survived the snow and ice, with Fylde the only game north of Leicestershire to go ahead. By kick-off, the Woodlands pitch was dry and eminently playable for two teams who, despite other failings, wanted to play open, attacking rugby. This was a compliment, not only to the weather gods but also to excellent work by the Groundsman.

Fylde attacked from the kick-off and they earned a couple of penalties for offside against the pressing Albanian backs. From midfield in the 2nd minute, the ball reached fullback Tom Carlton who set off at the heart of the visitors’ defence with his usual directness and pace. He burst through one tackle, then another to race 50m to score under the posts. Once again, Carleton was to pose danger whenever he was in possession. He is also a gutsy defender and does his share of tackling and covering. The fullback role gives him more license for the kind of broken field running that he has demonstrated so effectively this season.

Old Albanian continued to give away penalties for a variety of offences in these opening exchanges. By the 9th minute Fylde were soon back deep in their opponents’ half. The forwards drove forwards sucking in defenders before the ball was moved left. Lock Olli Parkinson, who had a strong game throughout, made ground before shipping a simple pass to prop Adam Lewis who delighted in slipping through a hole in the Albanian defence to score with ease. From near the touchline and into the strong easterly wind, fly-half Greg Smith curled a lovely kick which just cleared the bar. 14-0 and such a positive start for the home side.

Albanian came back strongly and started to put serious pressure on the Fylde defence. The penalty decisions started to go against the home side and on the quarter hour OA fly-half Tom Bednall had a straightforward chance to kick a penalty almost in front of the posts. He missed and it confirmed the illusion that this was going to be Fylde’s day.

Fylde had trouble throughout the game in earning turnover ball at the tackle breakdown. By now, the OA forwards were recycling the ball effectively and Fylde struggled to get their hands on the ball. In the 24th minute, the pressure paid off for the visitors as they sucked in defenders 10m out from the Fylde line, moved the ball left and flanker Harry Elbrow crashed over for his side’s opening try. The conversion was missed but the deficit was reduced to 14-5.

It was Elbrow’s last contribution to the game as he was injured minutes later and was helped off to be replaced by Andrew Christie. Five minutes later, on the half hour, the replacement was the beneficiary of an extraordinary lapse of concentration by the Fylde players. A penalty was rather harshly given against David Fairbrother as he drove forward on the Fylde 22m line. Christie took a tap penalty and with the home players standing around looking puzzled he stepped his way through for the softest of tries. Bednall converted to make the score 14-12.

Albanian really had the bit between their collective teeth as they piled forward in the last ten minutes of the 1st half. Following more penalties conceded by Fylde, OA attacked down their left and lock forward and skipper Ross Hamilton forced his way over from close range to claim the try. Bednall converted well for OAs to take a 14-19 lead. The OA backrow was powerful throughout, with flanker Sam Lunnon and no 8 Chris West particularly influential.

There was still time for OA to mount another attack and inflict more damage on the home side as Nick Ashcroft was sent to the sin bin before both teams trotted off to the changing rooms.

After the interval the game was evenly balanced with play shifting from end to end. Fylde still found numerous ways to waste possession with numerous handling errors. But, with David Fairbrother and Olli Parkinson to the fore, they battled back into the match. In the 49th minute it was the turn of an Albanian player to be sinbinned when prop Charlie Hughes offended.

Ten minutes later Fylde were awarded a penalty in the OA half and Smith kicked for the corner. From a fierce driving maul Fairbrother claimed the touchdown. With Greg Smith kicking the conversion, Fylde had regained the lead at 21-19.

The tight exchanges were evenly contested more or less throughout. But in the 66th minute another Fylde error handed easy possession to the visitors. From a home scrummage on halfway, the Fylde pack drove the OA eight backwards at a rate of knots. Somehow, the ball appeared on the OA side and off the visitors went deep into the Fylde half. The young Saracens dual registered centre Reuban Bird-Tulloch had caused Fylde problems throughout the game with his footwork, pace and strength. But it was his centre partner Dom Morris who earned the enormous gratitude of his team mates when he found a way through some indifferent Fylde tackling to touch down near the posts for a bonus point earning try. Bednall added the conversion for OA to re-take the lead at 21-26.

Minutes later Fylde’s misery was compounded by another error which was exploited by the Albanian backs. Fullback and leading try scorer Nick Foster was set free down his side’s left touchline and he outpaced the Fylde defence to score an opportunistic try. Bednall was unable to add the extras but his side had a 10 point lead which Fylde rarely threatened in the closing minutes.

OA celebrated joyously at the final whistle as they climbed a little closer to safety. They deserved to win the game if only because they made fewer mistakes.

Head Coach Warren Spragg said: “We knew we were up against a team who were also fighting for survival. The first 15 minutes went very well; we benefitted from a few lucky calls from the referee and we got on top and scored two good tries. Then we switched off completely. When the pressure came on we didn’t know how to respond. I’m really disappointed in relation to individual performances, a real step backwards from the recent positive displays we’ve shown in the last month or so.”

Old Albanian Head Coach Gavin Hogg said: “Overall, we’re delighted to come away with the five points. We were disappointed at our start. It’s been a disrupted week and we’ve only managed one indoor training session. We were please to come back strongly and dominate the middle third of the match. We hoped to pull away at the end and struggled to close the game out by making mistakes. We know how dangerous Fylde can be from broken play. Compared with some of the pitches we’ve played on in National One in the past two or three months, this is about the best. We were pleased to get a dry surface and it suited both sides in their attacking intentions.”

Click here for Chris Farrow’s 131 match photos.

FYLDE: 15 Carleton; 14 Hadfield (Fowden ), 13 Briers, 12 Wilkinson, 11 Bailey; 10 Smith, 9 Nicholls; 1 Lewis (Irving 61), 2 Gregory (Loney 52), 3 Irving (Richardson 31), 4 Ashcroft, 5 Parkinson, 6 Vernon (McCarthy 61), 7 Burtonwood (Hopwood 52-64, Burtonwood 64), 8 Fairbrother.