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After a week off over Easter, the Cornish Pirates travelled to Doncaster Knights on Saturday for this sixth versus fifth contest in Round 20 of the RFU Championship.
The Pirates, who had won 37-15 at home to the Knights in January, expected a much tougher examination ‘up north’ at Castle Park, and tough it was, before a late conversion kicked by replacement Harry ‘Baz’ Bazalgette, delivered the sought after victory. It was one richly deserved, with a gritty display of immense character being a most important ingredient.
There were five personnel changes in the Cornish Pirates starting line-up from the one that featured in the home win against Caldy last time out. In the pack, hooker Will Crane and tight-head prop Matt Johnson made returns, and with skipper John Stevens moving from open-side flanker to number 8, Will Gibson was selected to wear the ‘7’ shirt. As for the backs, Ruaridh Dawson and Arwel Robson formed a fresh half-back pairing.
Having just a few days earlier experienced what felt like hurricane conditions back in Cornwall, it was in welcome spring conditions that the Cornish Pirates naturally hoped for a good start. However, it was the home side who were first to post points on the scoreboard, when in just the second minute scrum-half Alex Dolly slotted a penalty goal on offer.
All but from the restart, from a penalty awarded the Pirates it was fly-half Arwel Robson who stepped forward to kick the ball to touch. With territory maintained, flanker Alex Everett was a bustling ball carrier before the Pirates spilled it at a ruck, and gifted possession back to the Knights.
Busy for the hosts at this stage was their Chile international captain flanker Martin Sigren along with former Pirates wingman Maliq Holden, and with further pressure ultimately applied, following what was deemed a deliberate knock-on, Dolly’s second successful effort at goal made it 6-nil.
Looking determined to acquire points of their own, skipper John Stevens strived to inspire the Pirates, and after a run from prop Matt Johnson and a snipe from scrum-half Ruaridh Dawson the ball was worked to wing Arthur Relton. The attack was thwarted, but no matter, as the visitors soon threatened Doncaster’s line once more.
It was full-back AJ Cant who initially took control of the ball, displayed clever footwork, and then fired a long pass out to Relton who slipped a tackle and cut back inside to score the game’s opening try. A fine conversion from fly-half Arwel Robson followed to the nudge the Pirates in front.
It was not long before wing Robin Wedlake also got in on the action, as part of a once again impressive Pirates back three. His opposite number George Simpson managed to halt ambition, but after play was even for a spell the Pirates appeared to get the upper hand.
Play approaching halftime was a little feisty after Stevens was adjudged to have made a high tackle but showing considerable character the Pirates held onto their 7-6 lead come the break.
The Cornish outfit, who likely deserved to start the second period further ahead, knew they could not let their concentration and effort lax in the second forty.
Dolly stepped forward early on with an opportunity to once again give his side the lead but his long range effort narrowly missed. However,
The Doncaster side now looked to dominate and for the present it was only through a determined defensive effort that the Pirates denied their hosts a score.
Flanker Will Gibson, skipper Stevens and hooker Will Crane were among those making important tackles, whilst Doncaster’s number 8 John Kelly Kelly, a former Plymouth Albion and Devon man, was always a willing carrier for the home team.
Entering the last quarter of the match, at this stage it was perhaps a surprisingly low-scoring affair. Play was a little frantic at times, but with it being a case of all ‘hands on deck’ for the Pirates when under the cosh, for the immediate present their defensive qualities continued to thankfully shine.
Overall, though, the Knights dominated play and in the 67th minute they regained the lead. A chip kick from Donny’s skipper and fly-half Sam Olver was gathered by Holden who did well to scrabble over in the corner for a converted try.
Had Holden broken Cornish hearts? If so, the Pirates refused to show it. Stalwart replacement prop Marlen Walker delivered a deft pass, and the ball was worked through hands to replacement Joe Elderkin who went close to scoring. Time was eating away, but keeping steadfast the Pirates maintained their pressure close to Doncaster’s line, from where replacement Jarrard Hayler scored.
The conversion to regain the lead was anything but a ‘gimme’ but with fresh replacement Harry Bazalgette having just entered proceedings, he was given the ball and cooly held his nerve to land what proved a match-winning conversion.
There was still no time to relax, as centre Rory Parata departed for an HIA and Dolly had the opportunity to win the game for the Knights, only to see his late penalty kick attempt drift wide.
Finally, in time remaining it was vital that the Pirates continued to display their previously seen defensive qualities, and they pleasingly did to end a fascinating game of rugby, and one that was, indeed, a real test of character.
Making comment after the game, Cornish Pirates’ coach Louie Tonkin said:
“We are absolutely delighted. It was a bit nervy and very close at the end, but we are really happy with the result away from home.
“The teams are well matched, and we know each other well. It was two good teams going at it today and both set pieces are strong and it was going to come down to one moment.
“We were a little fortunate there at the end when it came down to a missed kick but we have also lost games like that in the past.
“It was a case of us really toughing the game out and it was a gritty performance, which is the Pirates way, so we are very happy.”