Eccles travelled to West Cumbria knowing that a win would secure the promotion play-off place that they had been working for all season. But they also knew that Whitehaven hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for them over the last few seasons, and that a full strength St. Benedicts team would provide a much sterner test than when the two teams met at Gorton Street on the opening day of the season.
Eccles started brightly with hard running from Martin Thompson up the middle, and Tom Chapman making inroads out wide. The set piece was working well, making their own ball secure and disrupting their opponents. And it was a nice move from the line out that opened the scoring after 15 minutes, as an aggressive driving maul crossed the line and the ball was touched down by Andrew Frost. Tom Dutton added the extras to make it 7-0.
St. Benedicts came back strongly and managed to gain some field position via penalties from the visitors. After kicking to the corner they tried their own set piece move, hitting the front of the line out short and fast, but some last ditch defence saw them bundled into touch. The resulting line out gave chance for the ball to be kicked down the field and the danger had passed. Eccles then got back on the front foot and dominated the remainder of the half. Adam Wilkinson, yes playing away, split the defence and raced away to score to make it 12-0. More pressure was mounted on the line, but a combination of disruptive tactics and wayward passing from Eccles meant that no further points could be added.
If you need to defend a lead for 40 minutes, playing into a gale force wind on a wet pitch at St. Benedicts is not where you’d choose to be. Eccles knew it would take a massive effort and that any mistakes would be punished. This proved to be correct when, after a comedy of errors including a dropped kick off, loose carry and a string of mixed tackles, a penalty was awarded to the home side which was duly converted, 12-3.
With the strong wind in their faces Eccles found it difficult to gain any field position, and when they did it was too cheaply turned over and returned to their own 22. From this the home team piled pressure on the Eccles line which resulted in Sean Griffin being shown a yellow card. The Cumbrians used the extra man to their advantage and were able to find an overlap and touch down out wide. Crucially the conversion went just the wrong side of the posts to make the gap 12-8.
Eccles dug deep and gave everything they had to keeping their opponents out. But the pressure was obviously telling as uncharacteristic mistakes were being made, and there was a general nervy feel to the play. A couple of penalties were conceded but with time running out St. Benedicts decided to go for the corner rather than the points and the Eccles line remained intact. As the final whistle blew the rather muted celebrations were testament to the fact of how hard a game it had been, but Eccles had picked up the all important win.
Not a classic game by any stretch of the imagination but a hugely important one. Eccles now qualify for a winner takes all single game play off against Broughton Park, being played at their ground due to their superior league record, on Saturday 27th April.