By Ollie Godden
In a game dubbed the biggest of the season thus far, it took a dramatic late penalty kick from debutant Ben Cook to see The Palatinates defeat arch-rivals Loughborough for the first time in three years. The game at Durham’s Hollow drift home was played under lights on Wednesday. In greasy conditions with the BUCS cameras present, the nerve of both sides was tested in a tight affair.
It all started poorly for the home side, conceding a try just two minutes in. A missed tackle deep in Loughborough’s half was opportunistically capitalised upon by the away side through an impressive display of support work. Hooker Callum Lynch scythed through the midfield, before popping off to Beckett. The winger stretched his legs and and found Keunen in support to open the scoring. The try was duly converted by in-form Loughborough full back Will Kaye.
After the fast start, the moisture in the air made running rugby hard for both sides, and despite a Durham penalty after 13 minutes, both sides struggle to assert any authority. Durham managed to quell a couple of threatening Loughborough attacks with fantastic line speed and excellent defensive organisation, a pleasing sight for head coach Alex Keay who called for accuracy and discipline before the game.
In the latter stages of the first half, Durham were the ones to make a much needed breakthrough. A smart run from Ethan Harrison into Loughborough’s 22 saw him beat his opposite man on the blindside, before finding full-back Ali Neden who burst onto the ball and outpaced two Loughborough players to dive under the posts for Durham’s first try and send the crowd wild. Ben Cook added the extras and the home side were poised for a lead heading into half-time, before ill-discipline from the kick off saw Durham dive off their feet and give away a penalty with minutes left and finish the half 10-10, courtesy of Kaye’s boot.
Durham needed a big 10 minutes after the half to assert themselves in what was set to be another scintillating half of rugby. This is exactly what they got. Just minutes after the restart, a strong carry from prop Nat Opedo set up strong field position, before the second phase saw winger Rob Stevenson run a wonderful line to dissect the Loughborough centres and go over for his fifth try of the season. A poorly executed conversion attempt meant that Durham were still only five points up, with most of the second half yet to play.
Game management became a vital element for Durham, and in the proceeding 20 minutes, a ploy to play territory became the obvious plan. Some excellent scramble defense from Durham denied any danger of a try from the visitors, and good discipline saw only one kickable penalty conceded by both teams, both of which were scored.
With 20 minutes to go, a momentary lapse of concentration by Durham proved fateful, however, as a penalty conceded just inside Loughborough’s half was taken quickly by Loughborough scrum-half George Di Cothi. With Durham’s forwards caught unaware, Di Cothi fended off the tackle of Cook and offloaded to Mark Dixon, whose converted try put the away side two points up.
Unsurprisingly, ten minutes of tight play ensued, with Loughborough attempting to keep the ball within the forwards and afford Durham no opportunities to score.
However, with 74 minutes gone, Durham were afforded an opportunity, albeit a difficult one. 35 metres out, ten in from the touchline, Ben Cook had the chance to put last year’s semi-finalists one point up with little time left. Silence and tension ensued before the debutant slotted the ball through the uprights, sending the partisan crowd into raptures.
Loughborough spent the last couple of minutes piling pressure on the home side, but a couple of errors saw any chances blown. Durham were able to hold on to record a famous victory, one that injured captain Buchan Richardson will no doubt be proud of.
Centre Tom McClean was full of praise for Durham’s dogged defensive effort after the game, telling the BUCS cameras “A few weeks ago we went down to Loughborough and got pumped, they played well and they’re a strong team. We knew if we got off the line well and made our hits then the rest would come. I’m so proud of the boys…this is our year.”
Photograph: Max Halcox