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With a performance full of pride, pure grit and ability, after a period of extra time the Cornish Pirates earned themselves a place in this season’s Championship Cup semi-final with this quite superb win. It really was a little bit special.
Travelling to play Bedford Blues in the 2nd Leg of their Championship Cup quarter-final tie, with a one-point advantage from their 38-37 victory at home the previous week, the Cornish Pirates knew they would need to be something like their very best if they were to secure a result to see them progress to the semi-final stage in the competition.
Changes to the Cornish Pirates starting line-up for this fixture saw a return for Alex O’Meara on the wing, with Arwel Robson and Tom Kessell named as the half-backs. Following the retirement of Tom Channon, after 11 appearances for the Pirates as a replacement Syd Blackmore slotted in at hooker, and for prop Jack Andrew the game proudly marked his 200th appearance for the club. Two new faces on the bench were those of hooker Morgan Nelson and backrower Rusiate ‘Rus’ Tuima. Former Cardiff Met hooker Nelson has already signed for next season, and Tuima was dual registered with Exeter Chiefs.
Arwel Robson got the game underway kicking down Bedford’s notorious slope, which led to the Blues being forced to defend in the opening few minutes. That they did well and following a series of penalty awards territory was acquired from where fly-half Will Maisey was able to slot a penalty from some 30 metres out.
From the restart, a penalty offered the Pirates raised hopes of a score, but once again they proceeded to fall foul of the referee. No. 8 Tui Uru and centre Joel Matavesi made ground for the Blues, and after working their way up field it was Maisey who slotted his second successful penalty kick.
There was a real buzz about the packed Goldington Road ground, for what was the home team’s Ladies Day. Also, thus far, their captain, former ‘Pirate’ Joe Atkinson, who is due to retire at season’s end, must have been pleased with his team’s start.
Pleased, ‘yes’, but not taking anything for granted, and wisely so because the Pirates would soon score their first points of the afternoon. Lock Danny Cutmore provided line-out possession, and wing Tommy Wyatt then linked with full-back Carwyn Penny who appeared from full-back to score a fine try to the right of the posts. Robson added the extras.
It seemed inevitable, however, that the Blues would very soon register their first try in the game, and they did, with England under 20s full-back George Hendy influential before Matt Worley ran in a converted score.
The Blues, with their strong contingent of Northampton Saints squad members, were now looking increasingly confident, and with extra good reason when Worley proceeded to score his second try in the match, which Maisey converted from in front of the posts.
Visiting supporters got behind their side with chants of ‘Pirates! Pirates!’, but half-time arrived with the Blues still leading 20-7.
The Cornish Pirates made just one change for the start of the second forty, with Tuima running out to make a handy debut for the team. They also started the half in lively fashion, and in the process won a penalty whereby they opted to kick to touch. Blackmore’s throw led to a driving maul but sadly not for the first time in the match the threat was held.
A score would though materialise, as following a successful Robson ‘50-22’ kick, it set up a chance for another Pirates line-out drive. Success was now not long coming, as after scrum half Tom Kessell quick-tapped a penalty, and flanker Matt Bolwell made yardage, skipper Nicolas De Battista scored a try wide out on the left that Robson did well to convert.
Kessell, with support from such as flanker Will Gibson and centre Rory Parata, were at the forefront of a Pirates resurgence, and with line-out ball worked smoothly from a next drive to the whitewash it was Blackmore who was identified as the scorer of a converted try.
The Pirates needed to concentrate from the restart but were quickly put under pressure, first from Worley and then from replacement Oli Steadman whose converted try saw Bedford regain the lead.
Into the last quarter there was a raft of changes as the Pirates emptied their bench. They were also put under pressure with former ‘Pirate’ Alex Day directing matters as Bedford’s replacement scrum half. It all led a penalty awarded the Blues which Maisey fired wide.
In the context of the first 80 minutes, the miss had arguable importance on the outcome of the game, because the Pirates immediately responded with replacements Alex Schwarz, Robin Wedlake and Shae Tucker making their mark with the latter a scorer of an unconverted try. The Pirates were admirably displaying a never-say-die attitude once more.
The tension was mighty, the Blues faithful had suddenly gone quiet, and it all seemed to get to the players. Indeed, but for a knock-on Bedford would likely have put the result beyond doubt. As it worked out the score read 27-26 when 80 minutes were up, and with an overall 64-all score from the two legs, two 10-minute periods of extra time followed.
The home side started the first period menacingly, but the Pirates weathered the danger and seven minutes in scored their fifth and final try of the afternoon. Penny posted a penalty kick out of hand within 10 metres of the corner, and with no time wasted Tucker again made it to the line. Penny also landed a fine conversion for the first period of extra time to end with the score reading 27-33 (64-71 on aggregate).
As for the second period of extra time, it really did test emotions, especially for the home supporters and their team. Maisey missed a penalty kick at goal, and then, after wing Dean Adamson scored, Maisey also missed a conversion that would have tied the aggregate score.
In time remaining Hendy also went close to scoring, another dropped pass denied the Blues a likely score, and then they firstly opted for a tap and go rather than take on a penalty kick that would have seen them win. Gifted another opportunity in the final seconds, the correct decision was made to accept a relatively easy attempt, however the luckless Maisey was cruelly off target again, the sound then of the referee’s whistle signalling that for the Pirates and their travelling faithful it was time to celebrate.
It was said pre-match that all the pressure was on the home side, and so it proved, and for the Pirates the season continues. Hey, for big Jack Andrew it was a 200th appearance he will never forget, or anyone else come to that.
Speaking after a game that will now see the Cornish Pirates play Ealing Trailfinders away in the semi-final next weekend, scrum-half Tom Kessell said:
“For the crowd it was clearly a great game to watch – yet another thriller.
“Our bench made a massive impact and nearing the end of an enjoyable and epic season it is great that we are through to the semi-final.
“Okay, we didn’t quite do what we wanted to in the league but if you look at how we have developed as a group I believe our supporters have been very pleased.
“Back to today, there was also credit due Rus (Rusiate Tuima) and Morgan (Morgan Nelson) who came into the squad, as we now look forward together to next weekend.”