Nottingham RFC 2012-13 [illustration: Adam Poole]
With the Christmas decorations packed away for another year and drunken resolutions made for the twelve months ahead, Nottingham Rugby resolved to go into 2013 in the same fine form that had seen them exit 2012 with a three-game winning streak that had resurrected a previously faltering British and Irish Cup campaign and consolidated their push for a Championship play-off place.
The Green and Whites returned to work with a trip up the M1 to Clifton Lane to face the Rotherham Titans, who had inflicted a first league defeat on Martin Haag’s men back in September. With Rhys Crane available for selection after struggling throughout December with a stubborn calf strain and the young Tom Calladine growing in confidence every week and England under-20 lock Tom Price set to make his debut off the bench, Haag was in confident mood and keen to forget about the reverse fixture. “We don’t read into what happened last time. That was a long time ago, they played well that day and a lot has changed since then,” he said.
Haag could hardly have wished for a better start as Jack Cobden – only in the side after David Jackson was taken ill just hours before kick-off – gave his side the lead with a stunning try inside the first minute, ably converted by James Arlidge. But as soon as Nottingham were on the scoreboard the Titans began to exert control, squeezing the game and subduing their guests as Garry Law kicked four penalties to move the home side into a 12–8 lead as the second half ticked away.
Jack Cobden celebrates his try at Rotherham
Then, with just seven minutes of the tie remaining, Rotherham scrum-half Charlie Mulchrone was sin-binned, and the game instantly turned on its head. With victory suddenly tantalisingly within grasp, Nottingham swiftly moved up through the gears as skipper Brent Wilson crashed over the try line to put his side ahead, before substitute Andy Forsyth and Alex Lewington – with a glorious solo effort – added further tries to turn defeat into an unexpected triumph. The sheer quality of the rugby that turned a four point deficit into a bonus point 12–32 win showed exactly why Nottingham are one of the most devastating sides in the Championship. The news that league strugglers London Scottish had upset the odds to beat promotion rivals Bedford just put the icing on the cake for the Green and Whites.
Attention then turned to the must-win British and Irish Cup tie against the Doncaster Knights at Castle Park. Despite Jackson having recovered from his illness, Haag elected to stick with Cobden following his impressive outing. “Jack came in at late notice and did really well for us, which I’m immensely pleased with,” Haag said. “Everyone has to be ready, on their mettle, and not coasting through – just because someone is not named in selection during the week doesn’t mean they don’t stand a chance of playing on the weekend. Jack showed he was ready, he wasn’t picked in the side on Friday afternoon but he was out there playing on Saturday.”
And Cobden justified his place in the starting line up as it was his try, complimented by a brace of Arlidge penalties, that gave the away side a 0–11 lead in a scrappy affair. The headline event came in the second half however as loyal servant and fans’ favourite Jackson touched down from close range for his 100th try for Nottingham, becoming only the fifth player in the club’s 137-year history to reach treble figures. Jackson is the first player since Steve Holdstock more than two decades ago to reach the milestone, and joins the illustrious names of Arthur Derry, Mike Brownhill and Paul Irons in the history books. Even a late Doncaster fightback couldn’t spoil the party as Jackson and his comrades held on for a 14–16 win that keeps alive their Cup hopes.
For some reason the rugby was cancelled...
The following week’s Cup encounter with Llandovery offered another of Haag’s men the chance to join a different 100 club – that of players to make a century of appearances for Nottingham, as Dan Montagu was set to make it into three figures before the cold snap that has chilled the city over recent weeks rendered the Meadow Lane pitch unplayable, and led to the postponement of the crucial cup tie.
But not even the snow could stop a crowd of 2136 – the biggest of the season – from descending on Meadow Lane for the league clash with the Bedford Blues, and with Sky Sports broadcasting the contest to millions, there was a real air of excitement around the showdown. “This is a great opportunity for the people of Nottinghamshire to show the rest of the country just how big support is for rugby in the area,” said club chief executive Simon Beatham.
Experienced prop Matt Parr and hooker Joe Duffey were drafted in for the battle between the second and third-placed Championship sides as Haag looked for an advantage over his closest rivals. “Matt has come back fit from his finger injury, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in action,” the coach said. “Joe hasn’t played too much of a part in the last few weeks but he is champing at the bit to get back.” If any extra motivation were needed, Haag had only to remind his players of the game at Goldington Road last September, where an inexplicable 14 minutes of injury time was played that allowed Bedford to steal a 27–25 win.
Streather about to score
Nottingham showed their desire to avenge that defeat from the outset as they seized the advantage with some blistering rugby right from kick-off. A couple of early penalties from Arlidge, a score from man of the match Tim Streather, and Sean Romans’ first try for the Green and Whites gave the home side an 18–0 half time lead. Bedford came out stronger after the interval, and though Nottingham had three tries disallowed, they were always in control as they held on to seal a 25–17 win over their league rivals.
The Newcastle Falcons’ virtually unassailable 12-point lead at the top of the Championship table may mean the title has all but been decided just a month into 2013, but with Haag’s men continuing to show style and strength in abundance, there’s every reason to believe that this could be a very fruitful year indeed for the Green and Whites.