A New Dawn
With the start of the new year the league season resumed with a home game against Aldwinians. Any suggestion that The Griffalo was out for revenge on Ginger Lightning was quickly put aside when we realised Griff was colour blind and couldn’t tell who had ginger hair or not. The game ended up as another formality 39-14 win. The remaining games in January were to be two back to back games against Blackburn, due to re-arrangements caused by the intermediate cup game, and the return fixture against Bolton. With Blackburn also pushing for promotion and Bolton on top of the table things were starting to get serious. There was no understatement here, these were three key fixtures. The first game away to Blackburn was a brutal affair with the lads coming away with a 21-19 win but at a heavy cost due to injuries. The following Saturday with Eccles fielding a depleted team Blackburn were able to exact revenge with a 17-24 win of their own. Next up was the big one against Bolton at home. Total commitment was required, the lads played to their best, The Little & large show worked a great try between them, The Dutchman kicked a key pen with all the pressure on his shoulders, victory was in the bag until some idiot stuck his hand where it wasn’t wanted, and the game was lost with the last kick of the game. And yes we all know who the idiot was, and for once in one of my reports, it wasn’t the Brom. With a month that started so well it all ended on a real low note.
So with eight games to go, five of them away, and four of those in Cumbria, it didn’t look good. Added to that, Bolton had established a comfortable gap between themselves and the chasing pack. With Blackburn also sniffing around the only bright side appeared to be that Aspatria, who were also in contention, would be distracted by the Intermediate Cup.
To make things worse February went with only one game being played by Eccles, a home game against St Benedicts, who not playing on a pitch with RL markings found things very difficult and ended up on the wrong side of a 46-7 defeat. The away fixture to Fleetwood was postponed twice in two weeks due to an extremely high tide on the Fylde peninsula. If they had only known how short we were with players numbers they would have made sure the game was played. Thankfully the fulfilment of the outstanding fixture against New Brighton in the Intermediate cup was not required or there would have started to be one heck of a fixture backlog.
As we entered March it was quite clear, seven to play, five away, and maximum points a must at every opportunity. Problem was first game up was an away trip to Upper Eden, not the happiest of hunting grounds for the lads in blue & white. In this game we witnessed just what Eccles is all about, refusing to accept when they are beat, every time the home side took a lead the lads just kept coming back and clawed themselves back into the game, the most notable performance coming from Matt Parkinson who was not only tackling his own winger but also everyone else the Eccles back line was directing his way. Yet despite all the valiant efforts, all seem lost as with only single figures left on the clock the home side took a 14 point lead. We then had the Hollywood ending of all Hollywood endings, concluding with the winning try being scored by Captain Mark Greenhalgh. Those last eight or so minutes for me defined the season and gave all the belief that yes, this was going to be our year. Upper Eden showed they were all of noble stock as they congratulated the lads on a great win, topped by my friend from the home fixture coming into the changing room and saying, “well done lads, you lucky b******s”, it was well meant and well received.
After all the excitement at Kirkby Stephen we had another regulation home walkover 82-0, against Whitehaven who once again proving my theory that the West Coast Cumbrians operate a two first team policy. The one that plays at home, which is normally as tough as nails, and the one that plays away, and isn’t. Bolton would soon find this out for themselves, at their own cost.
Squeaky bum time
The long awaited away fixture against Fleetwood came requiring a journey via the west end of London. Following the drubbing they had received at Eccles the fish cake factory had managed to sort themselves out and were fighting against relegation, a factor which never makes for an easy game. Yet the lads once again set forth and gave a masterly display of controlled rugby winning 31-5. However this was not without a moment of concern when one of the lads had to insist that one of the home side stopped acting like an idiot. Spirits were lifted when we received word of the Bolton defeat away to St Benedicts. This just put us one point behind the league leaders. It had become apparent that they had been feeling the pressure from posts on the Aspatria Forum regarding the number of bonus points Eccles had amassed in comparison to themselves. And from that information stream, there was more to come.
So with four to go it was away to Workington, who were as good as relegated, well that’s what they kept telling us. Thing is I’m too long in the tooth to fall for any soft soap routine so if the lads weren’t nervous, I was. The first half performance didn’t do my nerves much good either. On expressing my concern from the touch line, a voice from the crowd behind me asked that I should be quiet as the lads were playing just as Workington wanted. Thankfully after the interval the Eccles machine started to work again and the lads secured full points with a 29-8 win. Now little things have big significance if you play the mind games, and as we travelled up to Workington that day we just happened to pass, on the Motorway, the Bolton Team bus. After the game we then found out that Bolton had just been beaten by the Whitehaven home side (note previous comments), understandably the boys went wild as for the second time that day we had passed Bolton to go top of the table by three points with just three games to go. The next day the banter and laughter was louder than ever as we all discussed “the posting”, or should I say the ghost posting for it had sensibly been altered. Although I am sad to say I never saw the original, from what I gather Keganesque doesn’t go anywhere near it. Talk about conspiracy theories, as far as I understand the only people/events not mentioned were JFK, Elvis, Lord Lucan, The Twin Towers and the Moon Landings. As Mr Kegan found out to his cost, such rants don’t do your team any good at all and give one heck of a boost to others. On the way home we called into Penrith, for the odd one you know. Griff almost missed the bus back and showed me his appreciation for not letting it leave without him by giving me one of his cuddles. A very misunderstood chap is our Griff.
Last home game of the season was against Aspatria, who could still conceivably claim the title themselves, their only distraction being a semi-final game in the Intermediate Cup and possible Twickers appearance. As a sweetener to this game a beer festival had been arranged over the same week end. You know, you do your best for the lads and all I got back was, “but it’s Mother’s day week-end, how am I going to get up and make breakfast with a stinking hangover”. Some people. Well first things first, the lads had to win to ensure a hangover was suitably deserved. Thankfully after a great game of rugby by both teams the players truly deserved all they could get down their necks.
The bonus point win against Aspatria had maintained our three point cushion over Bolton and theoretically put us in a position that the league could be won with an away win at Hawcoat Park, assuming that Aspatria beat Bolton in the northern flatlands of Cumbria. Not an unrealistic assumption by any means. The lads travelled with high spirits and even higher hopes that all would be resolved on the day. The “Merde” first hit the fan with a string of injuries, first Luke Cullen’s ankle went very early on, then after another five minutes another KO, this time Will Hamer, and as we had no more back replacements Greg Wilson had to move into the centres. The Griffalo then decided he was going to copy Luke and claim he had tweaked his ankle as well, this meant all replacements had been used up and we still had most of the second half to play. While all these shenanigans were going on the lads had been involved with one heck of a dog fight against a resolute Hawcoat Park side, full of stout Barrovians. With only a narrow seven point lead at half time, tense was not the word. It was made worse by whispers of a possible Bolton win on the cards at Aspatria. Then just as you think things could not get any worse, Mark Greenhalgh exclaimed to the whole of the Furness Peninsula that he had also damaged his ankle. You wouldn’t believe it, of all the days for Siobhan to go on a hen party. With no other option we looked at Griff and said, “well mate, for the lads”, and as we all knew he would he stepped, OK limped, forward and picked up the mantle again. As the second half progressed and seeing the lads battle on against all the outrageous fortunes a young Hamlet could imagine Mark himself felt moved to return “once more onto the breech” and do battle. The game was sealed in the final ten minutes with a Freddy Oakey try. Celebrations and excessive male bonding took place. The game ended with a cameo role by Joe Dale, with the last play of the game and picking the ball up at the base of the scrum he ran in the opposite direction to the opposition try line and kicked it into touch. “What did you do that for, we had the bonus point to go for”, he was asked. “But that’s what they do on the TV” he said. Confirmation of the Bolton win at Aspatria made the celebrations rather subdued, another week to wait to clinch the title. All talk of fancy dress for Keswick was quickly quashed. The high injury toll would also mean the dwindling player resources at Eccles would be stretched to the limit. The next day we all learnt the full extent of Griff’s injury, not just a twisted ankle but a fracture of the Tibia. How he played on I do not know, but proves the expression, “no sense, no feeling”. It also meant I had to totally re-write sections of my match report as for once I had a sense of both guilt and admiration.
So with not getting the bonus point and Bolton somehow gaining one at Aspatria the gap at the top was only 2 points. Anyway this now made things very simple. All we needed to do was gain a win at Keswick. However, yet again Keswick were also fighting relegation which meant no easy rollover for the lads. So with a depleted squad due to injuries and sickness, favours were called, journeys were made and as we knew they would, the cavalry arrived. To keep minds focussed on positive thoughts the team coach only had a selected few non-players on board. On the way up we bumped into the Fleetwood team on their way to St Benedicts, not much hope for them at that location, or so we thought.
With the whole season hanging on the last league game you would have expected it to be all tense and nervous. However those with wise heads made sure they were well screwed on tight and those with young heads didn’t know or understand what all the fuss was about. With that the lads gave a display of controlled dominant rugby from start to finish coming away with a 33-10 win, the league title and the promotion they had spent the last 5 long seasons fighting hard to obtain. The celebrations were noisy and for some of the younger ones far too excessive. Thorpey also proved he couldn’t organise a hospitality event in a fermentation building.
to be continued