The opening fixture of the 2017-18 season at the Woodlands was a close affair, with little to separate Fylde and Cambridge. There were just three points between the sides going into the final quarter and Fylde, although 12-15 in deficit, were attacking with verve. But Cambridge scored a late try to wrap up the match and deprive the home team of even a losing bonus point.
The young players recruited to replace a number of experienced heads worked hard and energetically. With seven players in their squad who hadn’t played for the 1st team before, there was always going to be a learning curve. Their mutual understanding will develop as they respond to the coaching of new Head Coach Warren Spragg and his colleagues and adjust to National One rugby. The visitors’ delight at notching an away win to start the long 30 match season was clear for all to see.
It was a lovely day for rugby – sunny, still and played on the excellent Woodlands pitch. The intention of both sides to play open, running and attacking rugby was apparent from the opening minutes. The much changed Fylde team, understandably, were rather rusty in the early exchanges. Cambridge opened the scoring in the 4th minute by a penalty kicked by fly-half Ben Penfold. Ten minutes later he had a rather easier chance to double the lead but he pulled his kick wide.
The early scrummages, a problem area last season, were promising for the home side as the visitors were driven backwards. The front row of vice-captain Adam Lewis, Tom Burtonwood and the very experienced newcomer, Mark Irving, looked a powerful unit and more than held their own during the 80 minutes. Their line-outs, too, were secure on their own ball, with lock Nick Ashcroft the focal point.
Fylde gradually warmed to their task and put pressure on a well organised Cambridge defence. The visitors conceded a penalty in the 22nd minute and debutant fullback George Brookes kicked for the corner. The subsequent lineout was won and a powerful drive by the pack was unstoppable as hooker Burtonwood claimed the try. Brookes’ conversion attempt was wide but his side had a 5-3 lead.
Cambridge had more possession and territory at this stage, had the edge in rucks and they secured a number of turnovers. When Fylde attacked they spilled the ball on a few occasions and the attempted off-loads didn’t quite go to hand. But the home defence was resolute and resisted the visitors attacks until the stroke of half-time. As Cambridge pressed inside the Fylde 22m area, impressive lock Rob Conquest found enough space to drive over in the right corner for his side’s opening try. Penfold was unable to make the conversion from wide out but the visitors trotted off to the changing rooms at half-time with a 5-8 lead.
A lapse of concentration in the Fylde defence in the 45th minute saw Cambridge fullback Joe Green gain possession from loose Fylde possession and he sprinted from halfway through non-existent cover to score under the posts. Penfold converted for a 5-15 lead.
This galvanised Fylde into immediate action and they attacked with real intent. Three minutes later a fluent backs move saw centre Connor Wilkinson make a clean break centre field. He passed neatly to George Brookes who shipped the ball to skipper Greg Nicholls. Cambridge scrum-half Cameron Keenan was the final defender and he deliberately knocked on Nicholls’ pass to a supporting attacker with the try line at his mercy. There was only one result possible as referee Ian Tempest showed a yellow card to Keenan and awarded a penalty try. Fylde were now back in contention at 12-15 in arrears.
The Fylde pack was working very hard and Adam Lewis, new lock Harlan Corrie and, particularly, the outstanding David Fairbrother stood out. ‘Fairy’ had a splendid game, constantly testing the Cambridge defence with powerful bursts all over the pitch. The stable Fylde scrummage gave him the opportunity to attack from its base and he asked questions of the visitors throughout.
Small mistakes undermined Fylde’s attacking play as they looked for a score to take the lead and they struggled to penetrate a solid defence. The game was by now end to end. In the 63rd minute a series of Cambridge attacks ended with fullback Green dropping a neat goal to extend the lead to 12-18.
Fylde took control at this stage and launched a series of attacks inside the Cambridge half. As the visitors offended, Brookes’ long touch finding kicks gave Fylde opportunities. A couple of attacking lineouts were lost. A searing break down the right threatened the Cambridge line but a man overlap was wasted and the visitors’ defence regrouped in time.
As Fylde pressed, they left themselves open to counter attacks and in the 80th minute Cambridge skipper, wing Mike Ayrton, broke clear and scored down the left.
This was a disappointing result for the Lancastrians but there were enough positive elements to encourage the coaches and the squad as they face a trip to North West rivals Caldy on Saturday.