This week our Sport Editor, Liz Tyler, was in the privileged position of travelling away with the team to witness their outstanding semi-final win against the University of Exeter. Here’s what she made of the match.
Arriving at the bus to begin the journey to Exeter, it was clear to see that preparations for the game had already begun. Despite the lack of coaches on the bus the team was focussed on the task in hand. On arrival at the hotel the team took some time out away from the hotel to have some dinner and rest before the day ahead of them. Before they all called it a night, however, the coaches held a team meeting. The importance of the match ahead was stressed but what most took away from the meeting was that opportunities to get to a final at Twickenham do not come around very often and that the players should make the most of this opportunity. Rousing speeches from Ciaran Beattie and David Bassnet gave the players first hand insight into how it feels to not reach the final stages of a tournament. With this in their minds the players retired to their rooms to get some rest before the all-important day ahead of them.
With the morning of the big day upon them, the team sat down for breakfast together. After a few laughs at the pictures and videos coming through from the travelling support for the day, the team headed into the morning team-talk accompanied by ex-Loughborough, now Exeter Chiefs, scrum-half Will Chudley. Loughborough, then, headed over to Topsham Sports Ground to begin preparations for the game. With Exeter only having lost one match in the run up to this game, Loughborough knew that the task in hand was a big one. The team began running through their pre-match manoeuvres and with an hour left until kick off the travelling support arrived to rally behind the team.
When the 1pm kick off arrived, there was a sense of anticipation all around the ground. The game started strongly for Loughborough, they made good ground and pressured Exeter’s defence but sloppy hands meant they couldn’t capitalise on their possession. Exeter responded with a good period of attacking play for themselves but it was Loughborough’s dominance at the scrum which finally broke the point drought. Loughborough’s captain and kicking scrum-half Tom James lined up for the posts some 10 minutes after the game had started. James’ kick split the uprights and the away side took the first blood, the score 0-3.
Now on the front foot, Loughborough pushed on again, gaining a scrum and then a penalty in quick succession. Some rapid thinking from James saw the away side take the penalty quickly and some quick hands saw centre Gair Currie cross the line under the posts. James’ left boot added the extras and the boys in purple took their lead to 10 points.
Exeter, discontented with the opposition’s scores, changed their game up to produce some forward-moving play. The home side pushed Loughborough’s defensive line but were cut off just short of the line, the referee awarding them a penalty instead. Their fly-half James Doe sent his kick through the posts and got his team off the mark, the score now 3-10.
The visitors did not sit back however, gaining possession after an impressive steal from Harry Nuttall. This possession and increased pressure soon gained Loughborough another penalty, James lined up once more and sent the ball flying through the posts and taking the score to 3-13.
Exeter, again, pushed forwards in their attempt to reduce the point deficit. They mounted a strong attack on the Loughborough defensive line, eventually gaining a kickable penalty of their own. Doe’s kick was on target and the score moved to 6-13. Loughborough struck back immediately, giving their captain another shot at goal. James’ nudge kept the scoreboard ticking over, the points now at 6-16.
An impressive run by Sam Barnes saw the visitors come close again but the strong Exeter defence forced a knock on and Loughborough lost possession. Loughborough then took to attacking Exeter’s lineout, James Hill’s long reach stole Exeter hooker Paul Davis’ throw which gave Loughborough a chance to attack again. A small mistake from the away side saw them lose possession again. Exeter chose to gain some metres but gave Loughborough another shot at attacking their lineout. This time Davis’ throw was too long and found the hands of Loughborough’s No. 8 Henry Spencer. Loughborough sustained attack on Exeter’s line saw them gain another penalty. This time James lined up the kick next to a large group of Exeter fans. Their jibed and jeers got to the normally reliable kicker and his nudge was just wide of the mark. He immediately got another chance at goal after another strong attack by Loughborough, but lining up in almost the same spot, sent the kick just wide again. Exeter then mounted a full-scale attack on Loughborough’s defence, pushing their opposition closer and closer to their own line. They, once again, came close to scoring but the referee awarded a penalty and the game slowed again. Doe chose to go for goal with the last play of the first half but sent the ball wide of the mark, leaving the score at 6-16 to Loughborough as the game entered the break.
The teams returned to the pitch both determined to win. Exeter made the first move, pushing forwards with some strong attacking play. Once again, however, the referee stopped the game for a penalty before the home side could cross the line. Doe lined up for his fourth attempt at goal, this time knocking it over to take the score to 9-16.
Loughborough returned immediately gaining a penalty attempt of their own. James lined up for his seventh shot at goal, the scrum-half sent the ball just wide again leaving the score as it was. Loughborough, however, didn’t let this phase them and were instantly on the attack again. The ball was successfully passed out to full-back Robbie MacDonald who crossed the whitewash for the boys in purple. James missed the touchline conversion but the guests had a more comfortable lead, the score now 9-21.
Loughborough kept their foot on the gas with winger Sam Barnes making another impressive run only to be pushed into touch by the Exeter defence. Exeter, now holding the possession, capitalised on it. They gained a penalty which Doe sent flying down the pitch to give the home side a lineout inside Loughborough’s 22. The maul that was set up following the resulting line out saw the home side barrel over the line and close the score gap. Doe’s kick was on the money as well and the score moved to 16-21.
The game then became a long period of toing and froing. Both teams made some ground before their opposition would force an error and take the ball back for themselves. Fans at home as well as around the pitch were getting restless with tweets coming in begging for updates. During this time Exeter attempted many attacking manoeuvres only to be denied any points by Loughborough’s strong defence. After 20 long minutes of no scores, Loughborough finally broke the drought, forcing an error from Exeter’s defence as they got close to the line. James lined up once again, this time splitting the uprights and sending the score to 16-24.
Exeter begin another attack on Loughborough’s line but come up short once again as the away side force them to knock on. A huge solo run from Sam Barnes saw Loughborough cross the line once more. James couldn’t add the extras from the touchline but the away side sealed in their win, the score now 16-29 with just a couple of minutes left on the clock.
Exeter, in a last ditch attempt to score, gain a penalty and get themselves close to Loughborough’s line. Their winger makes an impressive run and gets very close but a brilliant tackle from Yiannis Loizias sees Exeter knock the ball on. With the clock run down, the referee signalled the end of the game and Loughborough celebrate a fantastic 16-29 win which sees them through to the BUCS Championship final at Twickenham on Friday 27th March. Loughborough put in an impressive shift including some brilliantly underrated performances by Josh Sharp, Harry Nuttall, Jacob Fields and Gabriel Carroll alongside many others.
Coach, Ciaran Beattie had some words for us after the game:
“A fantastic win against a brilliant team. We had to bring our best performance of the season today and we did that. The greatest respect to Exeter and I’m absolutely gutted for them but I’m equally delighted for us because I think we put the work in. Everything we talked about and everything we did in training we brought to the match. We executed the game plan and it has allowed us to come out with a victory against what is, as I say, a brilliant team. That’s really pleasing from our perspective and it’s great that those boys can take that forward as well.
“I think we were a bit lax at times, especially early doors, we gave away a couple of penalties defensively that I didn’t think we need to, I think normally we really trust our defence. So we need to work on that, but that’s just an individual thing and guys that don’t normally give away those penalties will put their hands up and it won’t be a problem. That’ll be an easy fix. We’ve got a couple of bumps and bruises but I’m sure everybody will declare themselves fit for the final, there’s no doubt about that and we’ll have another great training week.
“We’ve got a match against Hartpury on the Saturday after the BUCS Final so obviously before now we weren’t able to finalise any details because we weren’t there but we’re going to look at a big weekend down there. Our BUCS 2s are also playing in a 7s match in London on the Saturday so it’ll be a massive weekend for the club. This is what it’s all about, great club, great weekend.”
We wish Loughborough Rugby all the best with their BUCS Championship Final at Twickenham and if you want to purchase a ticket to support the boys in their final all the details for how to do that will be released soon.
Liz Tyler, Sports Editor