National League Two: Birmingham & Solihull 23 Cornish All Blacks 19
If there was any doubt about the significance of this match before kick off, there was none by the time Birmingham & Solihull had shown plenty of substance and a modicum of style to breathe life into their faltering promotion campaign.
Head coach Russell Earnshaw maintained in midweek that he was not even countenancing failure against one of National Two’s fancied teams. A defeat would not only have been the second in succession it would also have been potentially crippling to the club’s hopes of an immediate return to the First Division.
It nearly came though. Just as Bees looked a better drilled and more incisive team for the first hour, they were forced to survive on instinct and desperation for the remaining quarter as the visitors came back from 23-9 down.
Bees went down to 14 men with a quarter of an hour to play following the dismissal of Alex Davidson and with full back Reece Spee manning the blindside they faced several scrums close to their own line. It would have been so easy to wilt. But veterans like Jim Jenner, Matt Long and Earnshaw – playing with a popped rib and nought but painkillers to dim the sensation, led their team to the most critical of victories.
The importance was not lost on anybody, least of all captain Rob Connolly. “It was all about the passion that we have been lacking in the last couple of weeks,” the back row forward said. “I know it’s a cliché but this was a must-win game. If we had lost the title would have been pretty much out of reach. There would have been too much of a mountain to climb.”
As it is Bees fell a further point behind leaders Redruth, who demolished Westcombe Park and saw second-placed Cambridge stretch their advantage to five but those are mere brush strokes in a much bigger picture.
The Solihull side have played all three of the teams above them and beaten two of them. Redruth by comparison have their trickiest fixtures to come.
What was most gratifying for Connolly, however, was the mental fortitude his team demonstrated. Davidson’s injudicious boot cost them their most disruptive player but Jenner and his colleagues in the pack were not to be bowed.
Not only did the No8 finish off a well worked move for the first try of the game, his leadership of the rearguard action in the closing stages was monumental. When he wasn’t taking the ball from the back of the scrum and barging away from his own line he was corner-flagging like an energetic colt to haul down right winger Marc Dibble.
Not that such heroics made the result was a mere formality. Jenner’s first half score and one by Spee gave his team a 15-9 interval lead and a lovely kick through by Mark Woodrow allowed the outstanding Mitch Culpin to pad the lead. But in the end it was all about what Bees did with their backs to the wall.
BIRMINGHAM & SOLIHULL: Spee; Hunt, Young, Mitchell, Culpin; Woodrow, Petty (Brown 61); Long, Phillips, Voisey, Davidson, Pammenter, Connolly, Earnshaw, Jenner. Replacements: Collett, Davies, Clayton, Halavatau.
CORNISH ALL BLACKS: Fabian; Dibble, Roberts, Perry, Smales; Staniforth (Semmens J 79), Webb (Turner 55); Brooking (Bolt 53), Semmens D, Porte, Pape (Hobson 38), Jenkins, Hocking (Lord 53), Roques, Remnant.
Referee: Nick Williams (RFU).