Nottingham RFC 2012-13 [illustration: Adam Poole]
After consecutive defeats had ended last month’s column on something of a sour note, the hardy souls that assembled at Meadow Lane on a chilly Friday night for the visit of London Scottish in late Sepetmber were clearly expecting a backlash from a resurgent Nottingham side. Yet for the opening twenty minutes it was the home team that looked sluggish, with a certain lethargy present in open play as only the boot of James Arlidge made any impact on the scoreboard for the hosts. However, Martin Haag's men are nothing if not determined, and before the half was out they had clicked reassuringly into gear, totally dominating possession as Arlidge continued to pummel the ball between the posts before captain Brent Wilson opened the try scoring as he was driven over by the pack to ease the fans’ frustrations. Just minutes later Nic Rouse added another to make the half time score a rather comforting 21-9.
Smelling blood, and a crucial bonus point, the Green and Whites showed their ruthless side in the second half as a score from the fit again Rhys Crane, back in action and playing superbly after injury kept the winger on the sidelines for almost all of the last year and a half, preceded a brace of tries from both David Jackson and Tim Streather. Excitingly for Notts, young stars Joe Cobden and Tom Calladine showed flashes of brilliance in a rampant second half, with the dynamic duo at the heart of much of the play, before the final whistle brought the onslaught to an end at 54–9.
Wilson and Calladine: supporting charity and fast becoming a comedy double-act
After baring their teeth against London Scottish, a softer side was revealed as the Green and Whites turned pink in support of the Breast Cancer Research Appeal. To celebrate the club's Ladies Day, and raise a bit of money for charity in the process, Nottingham's toughest rugby boys announced they would take to the field for the visit of the league's new arrivals Jersey in a specially designed strip that is pinker than even the sickliest of Goose Fair candy floss, with Wilson getting into the spirit by announcing “I'm a person who would usually try and argue that I'm wearing salmon, but this weekend I'm proud to don this very pink, very loud charity shirt”.
Aside from the chance to promote a worthy cause, Jersey's trip to Meadow Lane also represented a golden opportunity for Nottingham to consolidate their push for a play-off place by capitalising on back-to-back home fixtures at a time when the team appeared to be in such sparkling form. The 2011-12 season’s record at Meadow Lane was solid if not spectacular, something Haag is well aware of, lamenting that “last year we didn't win enough at home, even though it was a pretty strong record”, before adding that he wanted his team to use this run of home ties to “climb back up the ladder”. And his players were clearly listening as they put in another strong performance.
Although they never quite reached the level of performance that decimated London Scottish a week earlier, the home side were still in command throughout, with New Zealand-born Japan fly-half Arlidge once more at his imperious best as he led the scoring with his trusty right foot, all the while pulling the strings with a serious of clever territorial kicks that ultimately yielded a pair of try-scoring opportunities that were gleefully gobbled up by Andy Savage and Alex Shaw. A smart break down the left by hooker Joe Duffey then split the Jersey defence and set up Shaw for his second try of the day, before a penalty try from Arlidge and a fantastic effort from the impressive Crane (who played on despite breaking his left hand!) wrapped up the scoring to give Nottingham another commanding win, this time by a scoreline of 48–16.
Rhys Crane goes over
The result lifted Nottingham to third in the Championship table, trailing the faultless Newcastle Falcons and a strong Bedford Blues side, but still well on course for a shot at promotion. The injuries to Crane, who had been in such fine form since overcoming injury, and Streather, who also suffered a broken hand against Jersey, were the only negatives as the squad complimented their match winning performance by auctioning off their specially designed strips, raising over £1000, with double try-scoring hero Alex Shaw's shirt fetching the highest fee.
So, with successive home Championship fixtures successfully negotiated attention turned to the British and Irish Cup, with Nottingham drawn alongside the Doncaster Knights, Llandovery and Melrose of the Scottish Borders in Pool Eight of this season's newly expanded tournament. With many of the more established first-team players making way, the competition offers the chance for the Green and Whites’ youngsters to make an impression; Haag took that ‘reserve opportunity’ ethos to the extreme by also announcing that he would be handing over the head coach's reigns to former England international and Nottingham backs coach Ben Johnston for the opening fixture against Llandovery, in the heart of the Welsh valleys.
“It's part of the coach development process”, Haag explained. “I want staff and players to feel valued and part of the process. I'm not going to be sat on a beach in Barbados with my feet up. I'll be right there next to him. But this is a good chance for Jono to do things as the head honcho”, he added.
Dan Jackson hit hard against Llandovery [all images Alison Bowden, with thanks to NRFC]
Finlay Barnham, who starred in the tournament for Nottingham last year, skippered the side, as Johnston made eleven changes to his starting fifteen for the trip to the Welsh Principality Premiership league leaders. Though the visiting pack was the stronger, the away side were unable to convert their physical dominance into points, and struggled to contain the pace and creativity of the Welsh backs. Despite tries from Shaw and Joe Cobden, who both kept up their fine form, Llandovery outmanoeuvred their opposition to seal a 28–21 win.
Back on the safety of home turf, Nottingham then welcomed Doncaster Knights eager to get their cup campaign back on track. With Haag reclaiming his spot in the boss's seat, and with several big names taking a place on the bench ready to act as reinforcements, the onus was on the home side to attack. But the inexperience of the youthful side showed, and despite strong performances from Calladine (yet again), Rory Lynn and on-loan eighteen-year-old Cyprus international flanker Luke Frixou, the Green and Whites struggled to contain their guests, and a serious of costly mistakes and careless penalties allowed Doncaster to take control of proceedings, holding off a late rally to seal a 13–27 win that leaves Nottingham rooted to the bottom of Pool Eight.
It has, then, been four weeks of highs and lows that again sees Left Lineout finish with its team reeling from the sting of consecutive defeats. However, the league remains the priority, and so Nottingham has every right to be pleased with a very productive month. Besides, back-to-back defeats proved to be a pretty good omen last time round, didn't they?