Promotion heartbreak for North Walsham

North Walsham 6, Nuneaton 15: North Walsham's dream of National Two rugby at Scottow next season died on Saturday with defeat at the hands of Nuneaton.

North Walsham 6, Nuneaton 15

North Walsham's dream of National Two rugby at Scottow next season died on Saturday with defeat at the hands of Nuneaton.

In front of 1300 spectators, believed to be Norfolk's biggest ever crowd for a rugby match, they lost by five penalties to two.

So closely matched were the sides and such was the importance of the occasion that truly exciting moments were at a premium, but it was nonetheless an enthralling encounter and a great advert for sport in the county.

As is well known, Walsham coach Jon Curry was without four regulars and had to juggle the remains of his squad with skill and diplomacy. With no regular outside half available he brought back Brad Nichol, fresh from a stint playing rugby league, but his return brought his roster of overseas players to three and meant that he had the unenviable task of sidelining influential second row Josh Reeves.

As a result Iain Beck moved forward to replace him and Gresham's pupil Deaglan Hall was handed an 18th birthday present of a debut start at blindside flanker, Curry using the well known maxim “if he's good enough, he's old enough”. Also in the starting line-up was England's and Leicester's Tom Youngs who relished the return to this alma mater. Leicester had also released flanker Ben Pienaar for bench duty with the proviso that he played no more than 25 minutes.

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In cold but dry conditions Walsham made a brisk start but an early indication that things were not going to go all their way came as early as the second minute when a penalty lineout, which so often this season has heralded a try, went adrift and Nuneaton cleared their lines.

After eight minutes, pressure by Hall on his opposite number brought a penalty, and Andy Dickson, putting all thoughts of his Southend misery behind him, stroked it between the posts. Whilst not having things all their own way Walsham were kept on the attack by some pinpoint kicking by Nichol.

Nuneaton, proving they are a side that likes to move the ball around, were trying to get it to winger Phil Read, scorer of 21 tries this season, but the terrier-like tackling of Chris Godwin denied him a sniff of the tryline.

Walsham's three-week layoff was obvious as passes that would normally have stayed in hand hit the deck and the lack of familiarity of various combinations also brought unforced errors. However, their defence was superb with Dickson, and Youngs, in particular, making big hits and denying Nuneaton a path through the midfield.

Midway through the half Dickson increased the lead with his second penalty after a Nuneaton forward was found guilty of handling in a ruck, an area tightly controlled by referee Rowan Kitt, who was consistent throughout. After half an hour Walsham conceded a penalty on their own 10-metre line and Gareth Cull watched his beautifully-struck kick drift onto a post and back into play.

The visitors lost flanker Marc Howgate to the sin bin for a technical foul, and on the stroke of half-time Youngs burst through and what might have been a game-turning try was foiled by a last-ditch tackle a couple of metres out.

Their first-half strategy had worked well for Walsham, but Nuneaton's failure to break the Walsham defensive line clearly called for a Plan B. Coach Chris Tarbuck had one up his sleeve and from the restart it was obvious that, with his backs unable to break the defensive line, they had to put the ball behind the Walsham players and make them work their way back up field. It worked well - three times in 10 minutes they forced errors from Walsham in the ruck area and each time Cull stroked the ball over to give Nuns the lead.

Curry made his first change, bringing on Pienaar as Kenny Dodds headed for retirement, and the youngster soon showed why he has progressed at Welford Road. Walsham were almost continuously on the defensive but were not doing themselves any favours with some poor kicking that neither went to touch nor behind the defence and they seemed unable to get themselves into a position where they could use their forward power.

A fourth penalty for Cull as the game entered the final quarter meant that Walsham needed a converted try to regain the lead, but the prospects looked bleak as the Nuneaton pack, led impressively by lock Matt Soloman, drove upfield.

They introduced veteran prop Darren Garforth, but the set scrum was one area that Walsham were able to control and he made little impact. The visitors looked certain to score the game's only try when Tim Stimpson burst through, but a metre out he met the immoveable Youngs. For the second time in the game Cull hit the post, but 10 minutes from the end he wrapped it up with his fifth success from seven attempts. Walsham had a couple of promising moments but again spilled passes frustrated them and it was all over for another season.

It is easy to be gracious in defeat but Nuneaton were gracious winners, conscious of how much the game had meant to their opponents.

t Team: 15. A.Thorpe. 14. T.Holt. 13. A. Dickson. 12. T.Youngs. 11. C.Godwin. 10 B.Nichol. 9. J.Burroughs. 1. S.Loose. 2. G.Rossouw. 3. T.Groom (M.Scott 75 mins). 4. I.Beck. 5. L.Davies. 6. D.Hall. 7. L.Taplin (S.Herrington 77mins) 8.K.Dodds (B.Pienaar 48 mins)

Replacement not used. G.Pointer.

Scorer: A.Dickson 2 Penalties.

Cards: Nil

Referee: Rowan Kitt (RFU)

Attendance: 1302