The annals of rugby history will record this game as a tightly-fought contest between two evenly matched teams – but it was far more than that. For the final ten minutes, every break in play brought breathless silence to the Palatinate players and partisan crowd, expecting, yet dreading, the referee’s final whistle. As it turned out, the final whistle proved to be more of a shrill ‘good luck’ message for the next round after a late turn around secured a Durham victory.
Despite the terrible conditions, a pattern quickly emerged: Durham took every contact on their own terms. In attack, the power and leg drive of the forwards propelled them over the gainline time after time, while in defence, they appeared always to be outnumbering the Met players – a testament to the work rate and superior fitness of the Durham boys – and were consequently able to shut down the opposition.
Durham started shakily, with Leeds winning a penalty in the first minute. The heavy turf proved more than a match for the Leeds fly-half as his effort dropped harmlessly short of the posts. The first scrum then provided a prophetic projection of its later importance, as Durham turned Leeds ninety degrees, and after the reset Tom O’Toole expertly slotted a penalty. First blood to Durham.
Just a few minutes later, further Durham pressure led to a lineout in the Leeds twenty-two. A catch, from Josh Beaumont, colossal at the front of the lineout, and then a maul, led to a try for inspirational captain Rob Malaney. The crowd, having by now swelled significantly, arose as one to acknowledge the score.
While the scrum continued to dictate terms, a series of loose passes and poor decisions heaped unnecessary pressure on the Palatinates. From one such mistake, Leeds were granted promising field position and then scored from a maul of their own. This appeared to galvanise the visitors, as it was only by virtue of some outstanding scramble defence, and some good luck, that they were prevented from taking a good lead into half-time. Indeed, from the last play of the half, a well-worked break from the Leeds centre would have resulted in a stroll under the posts for a supporting runner, had the final pass not been spilled within diving distance of the line.
Ten minutes into the second half, a penalty was kicked deep into Leeds territory. The maul from the resultant lineout rolled on intact despite attempts to sack, enabling captain Malaney to score the second of his hat trick. From this point onwards, the game began to open up as legs began to become heavier, and Leeds began to push for breakthroughs, leaving themselves slightly vulnerable at the back. Several handling errors prevented the game from being entirely fluent, but it was most certainly gripping.
Durham appeared to be weathering the green storm but an innocuous penalty again resulted in a good territory gain for Leeds. They scored, and subsequently converted to go into the lead for the first time in the game. Now with only fifteen minutes remaining, they looked to close the game out, but kicked away too much possession in doing so.
Durham had numerous lineouts in good positions and threw the proverbial kitchen sink at the opposition at every opportunity. After several attempts to smash the green door down, Malaney broke from a maul to score in the corner. With the score now at 18-14 with under ten minutes to go, Durham were in control.
The one moment of magic in the whole game came when least expected. From a scrum in centre field, the Leeds fly-half dropped a deftly weighted chip over the onrushing three-quarter defenders, leaving their centre in acres of space. Once they were in behind, their momentum was irresistible and after a few phases, they managed to score in the corner.
To a lesser side this try would have delivered the knockout blow. However, when in the middle of a twelve game winning streak, victory needs to be wrenched from Palatinate hands with a great deal more force. If the attack had been fierce ten minutes previously, it was now brutal. The bone shattering collisions were interspersed with sleights of hand that almost unlocked the Leeds defence on several occasions.
Now, deep into added time, one such break by fly-half Mike Ward nearly led to a try for substitute Jak Pattinson with his first touch of the game. However, Durham proceeded with the tried and tested method – they besieged the fatiguing Leeds pack with bludgeoning drive after bludgeoning drive. After a series of collapsed mauls (and with a penalty kick not being enough to win the game) Durham chose the scrum after a string of cynical infringements were committed by Leeds, who were by now probably fearing the worst.
It had to be reset on several occasions, with the Leeds front-row looking for any opportunity to avoid engagement. Eventually, however, Durham managed a pushover, with the deserving Harrison Collins dotting the ball down over the line. After a period of added time that seemed interminable, an end had been put to the tension, and the home side were the jubilant victors. Durham were deserved winners after excellent performances form the entire pack, particularly the Stonell-Beaumont lineout axis which provided an invaluable source of possession throughout the game.
Due to the conditions, speed of mind was significantly greater than speed of hand or foot, and this meant that in the key exchanges, organisation and hard work were crucial. The fact that three of the four Durham tries game almost directly from driving lineouts is proof of this. Accuracy of throwing was vital, particularly given the conditions; then the organisation of the mauls themselves and then the exertion required to gain momentum and advance. While the margin of victory was slim (25-21) the character shown, allied with no little skill, should stand Durham in good stead looking forward to the semi-finals.