By Ollie Godden
You can almost predict the result of a highly billed Durham game down to a tee now. In my two years at the university, the rugby club has continued to push attendance for big games, often for great causes such as Project Zambia. But whilst the causes may be worthy, the games themselves are often not.
This was the case for Wednesday’s varsity match-up against Loughborough, a game that promised a lot but delivered little. The Palatinates fell to their third defeat of the season against a side of similar stature. An 11-26 scoreline flattered the visitors in all honesty, but Durham were made to pay for simple errors while Loughborough were just more clinical at key moments.
The atmosphere was invariably lively at kick-off, but the first 10 minutes were cagey. Most of the play was carried out in the central third, with both sides obviously keen not to give anything silly away. The only scoring opportunity came from a relatively straightforward Loughborough penalty which was missed.
As always, the rabble of Palatinate-blazered folk were in fine voice, oohing every big hit, most of which came from back row veteran Joe Duffy. With 20 minutes gone, neither side offered anything particularly expansive, but this was perhaps a sign of a decent defensive performance from both sides up to that point.
Durham’s defence was penetrated, however, at the 23-minute mark, when a lapse in concentration created a dog leg wide left. The ball was shipped out and, from 30 metres out, Loughborough full-back Tom Ffitch scythed through the gap and beat his opposite number to dot down.
The floodgates seemed to open from there. Loughborough’s clearance kick after the kick-off was not gathered properly and possession turned back over to the opposition. A couple of phases of forward play and the ball was spread again to the wing in front of the homestand.
This time it was winger Tim Bitrim with all the work to do, but a delicious display of footwork saw him beat three men and stretch his legs for a 20-metre canter to the line, silencing the home crowd.
The final 15 minutes of the half saw little in reply from Durham, barring an easy penalty. They would concede again, however. Poor discipline was again the perpetrator as the Loughborough forwards cruised in a try from a line-out.
By now the rain was hammering down, and this no doubt prevented Rory Hardman from clawing back a poor pass to go over in the corner in the final play of the game.
Collingwood’s Chadwick and Hayes came on in the front row in the second half and made a big difference early on. The power and ferocity of the pair won two scrums against the head and forced a more convincing line-out display.
The pressure told 10 minutes into the half, when a driving line-out forced Ben Howles to bundle over. Fly-half Catterick added the extras and Durham were back in the game at 10-19.
In typical fashion, the home side were unable to carry forward any momentum and conceded almost immediately. Loughborough retained the ball from kick-off and kept it tight until a quick whip out right, followed by a delightful offload out-the-back which put the opposition in for their fourth try. A fantastic kick proceeded and Loughborough led by 16 with half an hour to play.
Other than a highly pressurised 10-minute spell, Durham failed to penetrate the Loughborough defensive line, the opposition holding firm and the referee resisting the temptation to offer a card after a plethora of penalisations.
At the 70-minute mark, the visitors won the crucial turnover and sent the ball sailing down the field, knocking the wind firmly out of the host’s sails.
The final 10 minutes offered a dull petering out as the fans who had flocked in their hundreds began to leave Hollow Drift, the 10-26 final score leaving Durham languishing near the bottom of the table.
It’s sometimes hard to nail down exactly what is going wrong with DURFC. Truth be told, Loughborough were not a 16-point better side but comfortably sunk their rivals through their ability to switch it on in the red zone.
If Durham are to get back to winning ways, they will need to return to basics, do the simple things well, eliminate the unenforced errors and take the chances when they come.
This year’s Super Rugby league is very open and all teams have the capacity to win on their day, but the Palatinates will need to work hard to turn around what has been a disappointing campaign to date.
Photograph: Ryan Stevens