Steve Wake reports on Berkswell & Balsall Rugby Club’s emphatic Midlands West 2 play-off victory against ‘Old Salts’ on Saturday 28th April 2012, which saw them earn passage to Midlands West Division One. Berkswell’s season will have taken many by surprise, having kicked off on minus 15 points, thanks to a stiff penalty levied by league officials in consideration for a mass-brawl during a league encounter the previous season.
Berkswell’s achievement has been widely noted in the sporting press, with the play-off victory seen by many observers as the icing on the cake after an almost impossible achievement.
Old Saltleians – 3 Berkswell & Balsall – 27
Midlands West 2 (Play-off)
A determined Berkswell earned the right to celebrate their excellent 30th anniversary season in style with a winning performance in this play-off match to see who would earn passage into Midlands West Division 1. Berkswell’s 15 point pre-season points deduction was not enough in the end to deny this determined squad from continuing their remarkable ascent through the divisions.
Old Saltleians, playing in front of their home crowd, qualified for this play-off fixture by finishing 2nd in the Northern section of Midlands West 2, by playing to their strengths and demolishing opponents in the forward lines. Berkswell countered their front eight with a dominant pack of their own, alongside a controlling performance – and two tries – from Coach Mike Walls at scrum-half, plus the speed and tackling of the B’s three-quarters. All these qualities combined to effectively secure victory by the beginning of the second half.
A confident Old Salts team took the field and won early possession to set up a penalty kick, which hit the post and was cleared. But in the eighth minute a second kick, from a similar range, was stroked between the posts by Mason, giving the home side an early 3-0 lead. Berkswell responded by kicking for territory, with the halfback combination of Sam Bignall and Mike Walls finding touch deep in the Salts half, but the home side’s line-out was working well, and they were able to clear each time.
A portent for how the match would develop arrived in the 16th minute, with the award of the first scrum to Berkswell, in the centre of the pitch. As the ball was fed in by Walls the B’s scrum shunted their opposite numbers back some way, to secure the ball and lay down a marker that the Old Salts pack were in for a torrid afternoon. The visitors had weathered some early Salt’s pressure and were now spending most the game camped in the home half. After twenty minutes a series of forward drives were held-up on the Salts try-line and the referee eventually awarded a five meter scrum to Berkswell. The large and vocal Berkswell support bayed for the push-over, and the pack duly delivered, with No.8 Mark Galpin getting the touchdown and Bignall converting for a 7-3 lead.
Old Salts were now kicking for position and using their line-out to good effect. They used the possession gained to make several runs at the B’s defence, but strong tackling kept them at bay. Berkswell in turn were trying to bring the pace of their three-quarter line into play; Fullback James Knott and wingmen Phil Allport and Cameron Hunt all had enough pace to worry the home defence, but each time they were either bundled into touch or isolated and dispossessed. The B’s pack were still well on top and were now not only winning their own ball at scrum time, but also taking Salt’s put-ins against the head. The half finished with the visitors on top, but still only leading by four points.
A whirlwind start to the second half by Berkswell effectively sealed victory. Two tries in the opening five minutes gave them a significant lead and seemed to deflate Old Salts. Straight from the second-half kick-off Salts made a hash of securing the ball, B’s drove them towards their own line and, after a series of scrums, the visitors notched their second push-over try, again scored by Galpin, with Bignall again converting. Three minutes later an excellent long clearance kick by Walls dropped behind the home full-back. The blistering pace of Berkswell’s Cameron Hunt saw him chase and challenge for the ball as it appeared to almost roll into touch. Meanwhile Walls had run some 75 meters to follow-up his own kick and was on hand to pick-up the loose ball, dummy the last defender, and dot the ball down for an unconverted try and a 19-3 lead.
Old Salts came back after this double setback, but couldn’t work a way through the B’s defence. Salts missed a penalty kick after 58 minutes, which was their last clear scoring opportunity of the match. Berkswell were now more than happy to ensure the play was in the Salt’s half and let the clock run-down. With eleven minutes remaining B’s scored their fourth try as once again their pack created the opening. A series of scrum offences, near their own line, by the rapidly tiring Salts forwards gave B’s captain and tight-head prop Ollie Flint the opportunity to each time ask the referee to scrum again. With the line in sight, and another scrum-surge by Berkswell, the home pack disintegrated once more. To save the referee from probably having to award a penalty try, Walls stepped-in to pick the ball from the rear of the scrum, and delicately place it over the try-line.
Old Salts were now just playing for pride, but to their credit they came back and forced B’s to clear some late, threatening, attacks. Berkswell had the last word however with an injury-time penalty in front of the posts, which Bignall kicked, to end the contest.
Berkswell Scoring Summary
Mark Galpin (2)
Mike Walls (2)
Sam Bignall (2)
Sam Bignall (1)