WHITLEY Bay Rockcliff Vikings fielded one of their strongest sides of the season when travelling to Gosforth for what is always a well contested game.
It was clear from the Gosforth warm-up that they wanted to play a wide game of rugby and this was epitomised in the opening few minutes when they elected to run the ball out of their own 22 instead of going for touch.
This showed that the Vikings backs were for once matched for pace on the outside, and in broken play the Gosforth back three could cause some trouble.
Ever-ready captain John Dixon was expecting this and in the pre-match team talk set out the tactics to starve their backs of the ball by keeping it tight in the forwards when attacking and contesting every ruck, maul, scrum and lineout when in defence.
Wayne Turnbull and Matty Dunbar on the flanks caused the Gosforth scrum and fly-halves no end of trouble from set pieces, and with Mick Knott and Chris Keen doing the hard graft in the loose, the Gosforth backs saw little of the ball in the opening 15 minutes.
It was on one of the rare occasions that the Gosforth backs did get the ball wide when the first points of the match came.
The Gosforth fly-half passed the ball down the backs and looped round to create the extra man. His pass to the winger would result in a certain try but Jonny Gould intercepted the pass, sprinted the length of pitch and on his fourth attempt skidded in to score.
Unfortunately this would be his first and last mark on the game as he had to come off.
Gosforth’s young pack were clearly intimidated by the physicality of the Rockcliff forwards who, thanks to the front row of Ian Ramsay, Andrew Moore and Duncan Jordan, had won half a dozen scrums against the head.
Gosforth made a few changes to combat this, bringing on two old heads, one in the front row and the other at back row, both having an immediate effect.
They managed to retain their own ball and release their pacey backs and perhaps out of frustration Rockcliff gave away a penalty inside the Gosforth half.
Rockcliff retreated expecting a kick to touch but the fly-half dummied the kick and span it wide to the opposite side of the pitch to their winger who scored in the corner.
This would be the last play of the half and a wake up call for the Rockcliff players who now realised that Gosforth could score from anywhere on the pitch.
Rockcliff started the second half well and brought back the physicality in the forwards, forcing a penalty on the Gosforth five-metre line, which Rockcliff elected to scrum. A solid scrum and a good drive saw Dixon burrow through from number eight for a try, converted by fly-half Chris Forster.
Gosforth rallied and spent 15 minutes attacking the Rockcliff line, but the resolute defence of Dunbar, Knott and Turnbull ensured they did not cross it.
Rockcliff eventually turned over the ball and Forster cleared the lines with a fantastic kick.
Gosforth were determined to run the ball and took a quick lineout, spinning it to the full-back who ran 20 yards up the pitch but was met by the red and gold brick wall of Nick Dalton and Jonathan Earnshaw, the latter stealing the ball and passing to Lewis Partis.
Partis drew the defence and popped to Andrew Telford who scorched through a gap, straightening his line and popped to winger Andy Heide. The covering defence eventually bundled Heide into touch but not before Rockcliff were deep inside the Gosforth half.
This clearly affected Gosforth as this was their best chance of scoring in the half and coming away with nothing saw some of the players start to put their heads down.
Rockcliff started to turn the screws and after a barnstorming run from Jordan, Chris Marsden gave Lewis Partis the nod at the base of a ruck, and he put in a cheeky over the shoulder box kick for Marsden to chase and gather for another converted try.
Rockcliff were oozing confidence now and when they received another penalty outside the 22 they elected to go for a scrum, Dixon clearly sensing another try was coming.
Partis put the ball in and the Rockcliff pack eased forward, Dixon controlled the ball and Partis counted down the yards to the try line before Dixon picked and dived through to score his second try of the match.
With ten minutes left on the clock, Gosforth were determined to salvage some points and with influential Dixon and Ramsay off the pitch receiving much needed oxygen, the home side could be forgiven for thinking this was their best opportunity.
Rockcliff’s replacements, however, were more than up to the task as minutes after coming on Ian Whitworth chopped down a determined forward runner before Michael Donaldson got hands on to steal the ball, Rockcliff received a penalty for holding on, which Forster converted in the last play of the match.
This was the performance of the season for the Vikings and if they can carry this standard of rugby through to next week and the rest of the season, they will be a side to be reckoned with.
Rocckliff’s first XV are at home to Ashington this weekend.