The Big Match: Blackheath v Cambridge

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by Nick Sullivan

Can Club Conquer as Cam Come Calling?

In the event that you have ever had sleepless nights wondering whether it really is true that one of the qualification criteria for being a city is to have a cathedral, well… there’s probably some sort of medication you can take. But if the thought has ever just idly crossed your mind, then this weekend’s visitors to Well Hall provide the answer to whether or not that is a specific prerequisite.

Hold onto your hat as we renew the rollercoaster acquaintance that is the Blackheath v Cambridge (9th) match. The usually high-scoring game is back on the agenda for the first time in four years.

Strangely, although you might think that the prestigious centre of learning has been up there with the country’s metropolises (don’t even go there about the plural of that word) for many years, Cambridge hasn’t actually been a city for as long as you might think. Unlike the other place, which received its charter in the 12th Century, Cambridge didn’t get the nod until as recently as 1951, a good 900 years after its foundation. And, no, it doesn’t have a cathedral (being part of the Bishopric of Ely for anyone who is really interested). Still, the other place doesn’t have a National One rugby side does it? Especially since London Welsh went back to…well, London.

So, what’s been going on at Grantchester Road since we were last there? If Stefan Liebenberg leads his side out tomorrow, then seasoned watchers may think not a lot has changed. The vastly experienced No 9 now captains his side, and first stepped out onto Rectory Field back in 2007. After several seasons terrorising Blackheath with Cambridge, he moved on – after a brief stint at Bedford – to Old Albanian, where he continued in the same vein. Re-signing for Cambs for the 14/15 season, Liebenberg is one of the experienced heads that lead a generally youthful Cambridge side to the National Two title last year.

That aside, both teams look more-or-less entirely different to when they last met. Former supremo Rowland Winter has moved on to Coventry after securing last year’s National Two title and a new Director of Rugby, in the form of Northampton Elite Player Development Manager Ross Stewart, is now at the helm. Stewart has a ball-in-hand approach which – as everyone will remember – sits well with the Cambridge ethos. Also joining this season is another individual who ran out against Blackheath in his time – Adam Barnard – who re-joins his former club side as backs’ coach.

Cambridge have retained a fair proportion of last year’s squad although there have been a few significant departures. Fresh faces this year include: prop Ricky Reeves (although perhaps not quite so fresh faced, he’s been plying his trade for many years now and is possibly the only other player to have previously faced Blackheath in a Blood and Sand jersey), flanker Tom Nutley (brother of Northampton’s Ben), locks Wade Schoeman and Sam Copeland, centre Greg White and big, ball carrying wing or fullback Matt Hema.

Blackheath can expect a different sort of battle to last week’s tussle at Ampthill from a team that will not hesitate to run the ball.

Past Meetings and Recent Results

Well, if history is anything to go by, expect a high-scoring contest, with games between the two sides seeing an average of 61 points scored. Honours across their 7 previous seasons (2006/07 – 2012/13) are even at wins 7 apiece (6 home and 1 away for both). The two don’t tend to do things by half either – 50% of the time they are separated by more than two scores at the final whistle, whilst only 4 matches are within one score. The high and low points both came away from home at Grantchester Road – a humiliating 68 – 14 defeat in October 2010 but then a 26 – 58 away win in March 2013.

The last time the two combatants met in southeast London was, coincidentally, 4 years ago this week (27 October 2012), Blackheath running out pretty comfortable 35 – 18 winners.

Bringing things up to date, Cambridge have had a patchy start to the 16/17 campaign, with three wins to their name so far, two of those coming from their last three outings…

First up, in a great example of how it’s never over until it’s over, an encounter at home to Loughborough Students on 1 October. A high pressure and high tempo approach saw the visitors dominate their hosts for much of the game. Aggressive at the breakdown, good line speed, safe under the high ball and masterful at the lineout – the Leicestershire side took the game to their opponents. Aided, perhaps, by some sloppy defending, Lough ran in four tries – including a hat-trick under the uprights to wing Gair Currie – to seemingly put the game beyond reach. At 14 – 34 with 10 minutes to go, perhaps Loughborough had already won in the game in the heads or perhaps Cambridge found another gear. Either way, a blitz from Cambridge saw them out-foot a tiring defence three times in the final minutes, concluding proceedings with a last-kick touchline conversion. An ecstatic home crowd and a shell shocked Students’ side evidence of the 35 (5) – 34 (4) final score.

Next on the list, a trip to Moseley’s home at Billesley Common for a match which was also to have a pretty stunning result but, unhappily for our guests, not for the same reasons. It was evident early in that Cambridge were struggling at the scrum, giving Mose ample front foot ball. If the early signs were not enough, the loss of a visiting centre to the naughty step for ten minutes partway through the first half following a dangerous tackle really opened the door. Mose had already taken a 7 – 0 lead and, during the temporary absence, scored another 10 points. Restored to full complement, Cambs barely had time to settle before the hosts crossed the line again. A further two scores before the break gave Moseley a 34 – 0 lead and a real challenge for the come-back kids.

There was no let-up in the second half. The West Midlands men had the scorer working overtime as they had another two tries on the board by the 50th minute. At this point, Cambridge prop Dave Langley received some consolation for his own hard-working shift when he barged over the line on the 56th minute for a converted try. Brief respite from the Moseley surge though, as the hosts added another four tries to one further consolation score for the visitors. Final result, an emphatic 72 (11) – 14 (2) win for the home side.

Last weekend, Cambs returned home to welcome Macclesfield Blues to Volac Park, in a clash between last season’s National Two North and South champions. Despite pinning their guests to their own half for much of the first period, a lack of continuous control prevented Cambridge gaining any reward. Indeed it was Macclesfield who scored first as they clawed their way into the match, first with a penalty and then a converted try whilst the hosts were temporarily down to 14. Cambridge struck back with a neat ball-through-the-hands move for an unconverted try before, not for the first time this season, the Blues butchered a couple of scoring chances in quick succession and the score remained at 5 – 10 for the interval.

As with several previous matches, Cambridge picked up the pace in the second half with a far more composed and accurate performance. Three tries in a twenty minute period left them seemingly cruising to a victory at 26 – 10. Five minutes to go, though, and the Macc back line found a way through the home defence for an unconverted score, followed shortly afterwards by a lineout drive crashing its way over from short range for another five points. Final score 26 (4) – 20 (3). A losing bonus point little consolation for the visitors, but a fillip for the home side with a bonus point win that seemed unlikely at half time.

Match Day Details

Kick off at Well Hall is 3pm. Ensuring fair play is Shane Lewis, ably assisted around the edges by Stephen Light and Philip Bowers.
The sun should poke its head out to welcome our guests as any early mist on Saturday drifts away. Expect temperatures up to around 13 degrees and a cool 8 mph north-easterly breeze. I won’t claim that there is no chance of rain at all but it seems unlikely at the moment.

If you cannot make the game this weekend, don’t forget the always excellent Graham Cox on BBC Radio Kent (96.7 FM, 104.2 FM, 774 AM, DAB & On-line) who provides live score updates and reports, post-match interviews, plus a full round-up National League results for all Kent clubs around 5.15 pm.

Team News

Blackheath First XV V Cambridge HOME 22 October 2016

13. Markus BURCHAM (Capt)
12. Mark COOKE
10. Simon WHATLING
1. Aston CROALL
3. Terry READ
6. Freddie OWEN
7. Chris WALKER

16. Harry FRY
17. Kieron SCUTT
18. Anders NILSSON
19. Jake LLOYD
20. Jamie DAVIES

Around the Grounds

Match at the day at the top of the table this weekend must be Hartpury College (1st) hosting Ampthill (4th), although the odds are with the home boys to maintain their 100% record. Another potential cracker sees Coventry (8th), at home for the second match in a row, take on Plymouth Albion (4th). Both sides had impressive wins last time out – Cov scoring 8 tries against Fylde, and Albion restricting DMP to a solitary penalty – if the home side maintain last weekend’s form, they will be favourites.

Moseley (2nd) squeaked a win away at Ross Park last weekend and return to the West Midlands tomorrow where the home faithful will likely anticipate a win over Old Albanian (10th). Loughborough Students (7th), victors over OAs last time out, are back at home for visiting Darlington Mowden Park (6th) in a very close to call game.

Below par Esher (12th), with only two wins to date, will hope to add to struggling Blaydon’s (16th) woes at Molesey Road, as Fylde (13th) look to bounce back from last weekend’s heavy defeat by Coventry as they host tough Hull Ionians (11th) at the Woodlands. Ionians have already run several good sides close and their powerful pack could prove too much for the Lancashire side.

Finally, in what could be another fascinating game at the wrong end of the table, Macclesfield (15th) who, by their own account have thrown a couple of wins away this season, have a home tie against improving Rosslyn Park (14th).


FRIDAY NIGHT rugby alert!

The Heathens went one step further than the first XV last weekend, beating their Ampthill counterparts 17 – 41 in Bedfordshire. The win takes them back to the top of the Zoo Sports table, 3 points ahead of Old Elthamians in second and 4 from Barnes in third. Lurking in the shadows though, only 5 points behind but with two games in hand, are favourites Richmond Vikings.

Barnes themselves have one game in hand, although the Heathens could neutralise that this time out as they travel to The Rock in Priory Lane (Rosslyn Park FC) on Friday night for a 7.45 kick off against the third placed side. Easily walkable from Barnes station (19 minutes from Waterloo), if you’re at a loose end on Friday night, why not support the boys?

The temperature should stay in double figures for Friday evening, with some patchy cloud and a light northerly breeze.

Good luck Blackheath and Come On Youuuu Cluuuuuub!

Graham Cox

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