By Ollie Godden
Durham were given a wake-up call in their first league game after the Christmas break, as Exeter put in a ruthless second-half performance to earn a 17-50 win in a vital match between two clubs with genuine a chance of reaching the inaugural BUCS Super Rugby final at Twickenham come the end of the season.
In a game that would no doubt be won or lost up front, Durham’s ill-discipline and subsequent inability to deal with the set piece left them shocked and disappointed. Whilst the game was always going to be a tough one, few expected the onslaught that befell the Palatinates.
It all started brightly for the home side, too. After only 10 minutes, Durham found themselves already 12-0 up, Nat Opedo twice the beneficiary of surging mauls off the back of solid line outs. The ever-rapturous DURFC faithful were, once again, in full voice, and expecting a dousing.
Exeter responded with aplomb, however. 3 minutes after conceding their second, the visitors exercised a driving line out of their own, crashing over in the left corner, leaving themselves only 5 points adrift. Minutes later, Exeter took the lead. A penalty given away in a harmless midfield position was nudged into touched, a driving maul was set up, and the fourth try of the evening was secured. 20 minutes gone, Exeter leading 12-14, barely a chance to catch a breath.
A lightening start led to an unsurprisingly cagey second quarter. With knock-ons and silly mistakes galore, both sides struggled to take the ascendency. The freezing cold conditions no doubt a hindrance to the backs, Stevenson who were seldom afforded the opportunity to get going.
In the thirtieth minute, it was Durham who retook the lead, however. After a spell of pressure on Exeter’s line, a clearance kick fell into the hands of fly half Ben Cook in midfield. The ball was quickly spread to the left touch line with outside centre Tom McClean, who chipped ahead of his opposite number deep into Exeter’s 22. It was Englan Students representative Sam Moncur who managed to scramble onto the loose ball and dot down for Durham’s third try.
The last action of the half saw Exeter’s Chris Swash yellow carded for a dangerous tip tackle and a penalty opportunity to the posts missed soon after. Going into the break 17-14 with a man advantage, Durham looked in a seemingly strong position to kick on against the only side to have toppled top of the league Hartpury this season.
The opening stages of the second half were disappointing for the home side. Alex Keay’s half time team talk no doubt included the importance for discipline, but this call was not answered. Only 4 minutes in, a penalty was given away at the breakdown, Exeter’s Ted Landry booted into the corner and a maul saw their third try scored.
Ten minutes later, things only got worse. Having given away three points moments before, Exeter were awarded a penalty try for a lack of discipline, this time, at the scrum. 17-29, and Exeter back to 15, Durham had their backs against the wall.
The closing stages can only be described as a capitulation from the Palatinates. A failure to deal with Exeter’s set piece (a surprise given the calibre of the Durham pack which included Justin Clegg, that day selected for England U20s, and Newcastle Falcon Adam Brocklebank) saw two more tries scored from mauls, as well as a rare, but try from open play which saw forward phase play capitalise upon a tired opposition.
The scores finished 17-50, a drubbing for the home side who were expecting a much better display. This said, it must be one to learn from, forget and move on from for DURFC. On occasions, one must hail the strength of the opposition, and whilst Durham did afford Exeter opportunities, the away side were arguably the most clinical side to visit Hollow Drift. A tactical lesson was learnt in the way Exeter bossed the game up front in the conditions. A lesson, one hopes, Durham can digest and emulate to in their next game against Northumbria.
Durham remain fourth in the league table, now 13 points adrift of second placed Loughborough. With plenty of rugby still to play, Durham must be sure they still have a shot at stepping onto the hallowed turf of Twickenham, come the end of the season.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons