LADIES 1ST TAKE ON TITLE RIVALS READING
Following a challenging 2018-19 campaign that saw the Ladies 1st XV short of the promotion places, expectations were that the ever-growing squad would be pushing for the title come the season’s end. As an ever-present within the group challenging for the Women’s National Championship 1 South East title, the team were looking forward to the visit of a Reading team that bested them in November.
Facing a wetter-than-usual DSP, and a bigger-than-average pack, the casual observer might’ve been forgiven for thinking that they would be in for a set-piece showcase and an unforgiving afternoon of forwards grinding one another into the mud. Whilst the opening exchanges didn’t dispel such fears, with Ironsides turning over the visiting scrum and the defence suffocating early attempts from the visitors to make use of the pitch’s width, the home backline soon got in on the action.
Stealing Reading’s ball at the scrum for the second time in as many minutes, Fiona picked the ball up and took it for a 30 yard gain, swatting off would-be tacklers before being dragged down 5 metres short of the line. Showing no signs of white-line fever, Ellie Pattinson at 9 quickly released the backs, going through Bethan before the Ironsides right wing Liberty King beat her opposite number for the first try of the game. 5 - 0 Ironsides. Liberty soon doubled her try total on the day after some powerful running across the forwards and backs gave the Irons a scrum 5 metres out. Spotting the space, Ellie again released Liberty on the blindside, catching the opposition napping and diving over in the corner. 10 - 0 to the Irons.
Not wanting to be outshone by the clinical back-play on such an unforgiving pitch, it was the turn of the forwards to show what they were capable of. With Tania and Kaytlin making yards in open play, and the tight-five pairing of Grace and Rose punching holes in the opposition lines, Reading were doing everything they could to hold on. Even when enjoying moments of possession, the Irons were quick to give Reading few options and fewer phases. A forward-shaped green wall of defence, for which the Ladies have become renowned, stopped the visiting pack from making any meaningful inroads and the steely centre pairing of Sarah C and SJ cut off any balls being fed to the opposition back three, leaving the Reading flyhalf little choice but to kick to Sinead, ready and waiting at fullback.
Having not-yet learned the dangers of doing so, the Ladies’ backline were keen to serve up another reminder. Collecting a deep clearance kick from Reading, Sinead started and finished the response, working the ball across the entire backline first one way, before swiftly returning the ball from whence it came, touching the ball down in the corner. 15 – 0 to the Ironsides. Three tries within the first 30 had the home team well and truly in control. Unwilling to relinquish it just yet, the home team continued to ground and pound, looking for more before the half.
Following the gameplan to the letter, the team continued to pile on the forward phases before releasing the backs. More aggressive running lines and sharp hands from the front row pairing of Grace and Tess gave space for the backs to stretch their legs, with some productive sniping, flamboyant chip-and-chasing and effective running once again giving the Ladies excellent territory, securing a scrum just 5 metres out. Pulling out a move straight from the training manual, the reading defence was bamboozled, losing track of Sarah C’s loop as she touched down under the posts. A simple conversion from Sinead had the home team 22 – 0 up and just one score off of the bonus point.
Not wanting to be shut out of the game before the first 40 were up, Reading marched down into the Ironside’s 22 for the first time, showing the kind of forward play that had them challenging for top-spot all year. Able to carve out a yard or two with every carry, progress was only halted once they’d made it down to the home 5 metre line. With the backs still being starved of clean ball, the visitors continued to try to break down the green wall, pounding it up the gut for phase after phase, clearly tiring from each hit from the Iron’s defence. Out of options with the forwards, the visitors span it wide, giving Ironsides the chance to pounce, turning the ball over and finishing off the half.
After a first half played at such a break-neck speed, the second was an altogether more attritional affair, with the home pack continuing to make hard yards and the visitors chasing the game with their backs. Keen to keep on the pressure and relieve some tired legs, the Ironsides bench was emptied soon into the second half. With the season starting to reach an exciting climax, and the prospect of a playoff at the end of it, giving the finishers a chance to stake a claim for a starting jersey would be key if the team were to finish strong.
Sensing the opportunity to fight back as the home substitutes acclimatised to the game, Reading started to build pressure, putting their size advantage to good use and making positive yards. Gifting the visitors a few careless penalties had the Irons defending just metres from their own line, and despite a brave last-ditch tackle from Kate Wilderspin, Reading crashed over under the posts for their first points of the game, to make it 22 – 7.
Looking to finish on a high-note, the Ladies wrested back control of the game, sticking to the gameplan of forward phases before releasing the backs. Despite DSP starting to disintegrate underfoot, the fresh legs of the subs started to show, with Tania continuing to make inroads alongside Raven, putting the visitors on the backfoot deep in their own territory. Spotting a gap at the breakdown, Rose picked up a well-presented ball from 10 metres out, crashed through two tired attempts to bring her down, carrying a brace of would-be tacklers over the line for another try, before Jess Gregory followed with the final score of the day after another dominant home scrum. 32 – 7 to the Ladies 1st XV, and top spot in the National Championship 1 SE.
“The final score is the result of months of hard work by the entire squad,” said Ironsides Coach, Mike Crofts, after the game. “The coaches are really pleased to have seen several players move from the 2XV up to the 1XV and really establish themselves in the last few games. We have a busy run in to the final game of the season and hope we can finish the season with promotion.”
With the season now entering the final third, the Ladies 1st XV find themselves sitting atop the Women's National Championship 1 South East (North) with a small cushion over the chasing pack.
Next games: @Windsor Ladies (Feb 23rd), vs. Rosslyn Park, DSP (March 1st), @London Welsh (March 15th)
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