Late try pegs back Cambridge in thrilling game against Sale FC
Tries galore in opening game of new season
If starting the season with a bang is the request, then Volac Park was the place to be on the opening day of the National League One campaign.
The points may have flown in across the division, but it is difficult to imagine the other games were quite as breath-taking as the 36-36 draw between Cambridge and Sale FC.
It was a brilliant match for the neutral and great entertainment, although supporters of both sides no doubt had their nerves frayed by the end – and it is difficult to imagine how the two sets of players and coaching staff fared.
Optimism with caution may be the best way to look at it from a Cambridge perspective – although the same could be said for Sale.
The visitors went into a 19-3 lead, which they had stretched to 31-10 by the 46th minute, but by the end of the game, they required a try from Simon Griffiths in the last play to earn them a draw.
And if Chris Johnson had landed the conversion it could have been a win for Sale.
There were plenty of positives from Cambridge, but the three to highlight would be character, fitness and possession.
To be 12-0 down after six minutes on your home turf in the opening game, having conceded a particularly weak second try, is a kick in the teeth.
To then have fought back into the game only to concede a fourth try on the brink of half time is even harder to digest.
They kept plugging away though, and by becoming the dominant force, they forced Sale FC onto the back foot. It was strength of character as a unit that allows you to do that, and sets up the season nicely – even taking into account the late try after ceding possession.
Getting into the position to make the difference on the scoreboard was down to two things though – possession and fitness.
When Sale were on top, they were looking after the ball well and making every foray into the Cambridge 22 tell with points.
Cambridge, meanwhile, were just not looking after possession well enough as they tried to stretch play, and that in turn was putting huge pressure on the two half-backs to be here, there and everywhere.
However, once the team started looking after the ball, it allowed Jack Green and Kieran Duffin to set the game, and once that happened, the replacements were able to make an impact in the latter stages of the match.
And that is where the fitness came to the fore. Sale appeared to visibly retreat into their shells, finding it harder to clear their lines or maintain possession.
The battering ram that is Steve Hipwell – who was the sponsors’ man of the match, but James Ayrton and Jake McCloud also deserve honourable mentions – was getting further and further over the gain line, and therefore putting the hosts on the front foot.
With play stretched, Cambridge were then able to claw their way into the lead.
It was telling though that Cambridge ended up conceding the final try from a position of relative ease on halfway, and it will be this area – the ground that Sale could make up – which will no doubt be one of the major work-ons.
Griffiths’ try was definitely a fitting reward for Sale, who deserved a draw from the game.
They played in a positive and structured manner that you imagine will serve them well after their promotion from National League 2N.
It was Griffiths that bookended the game, as not only did he get the final try, he also got the opener in the fourth minute after a spell of pressure on the line.
Adam Aigbokhae got the second try, after a break from the impressive Chris Owen, and it was 19-0 after 28 minutes as Matthew Postlethwaite walked through a hole in the defence to touch down.
Green landed a penalty after 30 minutes for Cambridge’s first points, and then Ean Griffiths grounded the ball after four phases from a catch and drive, with the conversion making it 19-10.
There was a blow though when Adam Reed sold a perfect dummy on the counter to touch down, and Johnson converted to make it 26-10 at half time.
Reed was at it again six minutes into the second half, evading about five attempted Cambridge tackles from halfway before passing to Aigbokhae to touch down to make it 31-10.
Cambridge were looking after the ball well though, and from another catch and drive at a line-out, Griffiths scored his second.
McCloud produced a good line-out steal in the 59th minute, and with play moved across the pitch and back, Hipwell went over on the diagonal, with Ben Penfold converting for 31-22.
Hipwell had an impact from the base of the scrum in the 68th minute, driving forwards before play was moved wide for Fin Creighton to put in Ashley Elvers to score, with Penfold adding the extras.
As the pressure increased from the hosts, an overlap was created for Penfold to pass wide to Elvers to touch down, and Penfold’s conversion made it 36-31.
Sale had Jake Pope red carded for foul play against Gillian Benoy, but despite being a man light, they followed up Jack Moorhouse’s superb break to show calmness and patience under pressure for Griffiths to score the equalising try after multiple phases of driving for the line.
And if that is just the opening game, then who knows what is in store for the rest of the season at Volac Park?
Cambridge: Rayner; Elvers, Yawayawa, J Ayrton, M Ayrton; Green, Duffin; Ibrahim, Griffiths, Alexis, Bretag-Norris, Baxter, Benoy, Laxton, Hipwell.
Replacements: Peck (Alexis, 48), McCloud (Baxter, 48), Creighton (Duffin, 54), Penfold (Green, 54), Rayment (Griffiths, 68).
Sale FC: Rawcliffe; Owen, Dunne, Lawrence, Read; Johnson, Bradley; Birchall, Briggs, Griffiths, Davies, Postlethwaite, Aigbokhae, Seymour, Hughes.
Replacements: Pope (Griffiths, 41), Moore (Aigbokhae, 5), Priestley-Nangle (Davies, 69), Taylor (Briggs, 69), Griffiths (Birchall, 77), Moorhouse (Rawcliffe, 77), Aigbokhae (Bradley, 80).
Scorers: 4min Griffiths try (0-5), 6 Aigbokhae try – Johnson con (0-12), 28 Postlethwaite try – Johnson con (0-19), 30 Green penalty (3-19), 39 Griffiths try – Green con (10-19), 40+4 Reed try – Johnson con (10-26), 46 Aigbokhae try (10-31), 52 Griffiths try (15-31), 59 Hipwell try – Penfold con (22-31), 68 Elvers try – Penfold con (29-31), 76 Elvers try – Penfold con (36-31), 80+8 Griffiths try (36-36).
Referee: Alex Thomas.
Sin bin: Sale – Postlethwaite (technical offence, 66).
Red card: Sale – Pope (foul play, 80+1).