Thrills and spills return as Cambridge are beaten by Rams in National League One
The thrills and spills of National League One rugby were back in full flow at Volac Park as Cambridge suffered a 34-28 defeat to Rams.
There may have been a hiatus of 545 days without rugby, but Cambridge certainly showed that they have not lost the ability to entertain - and also put their supporters through the full rollercoaster of emotions.
The score line does little to explain the true story of the game, as the hosts found themselves 24-0 down and 34-7 behind at different points of the game.
In a rarity, you can actually pinpoint both the thrills and the spills - with the former being the way Richie Williams' side galvanised themselves to earn two bonus points, and the spills sadly coming through two knock-ons over the try line when touch downs were all but guaranteed.
Both points could be put down to opening day nerves, and perhaps a bit of rustiness, but should not detract from the display of the Rams, who deserved their victory.
It may be that the biggest spills from a Cambridge perspective were the way in which they let the Reading-based team open up such a lead, with three of the tries coming from surrendering possession and territory a little too easily.
The hosts had actually settled into the game quicker, and had a chance to take an early lead, only for Lawrence Rayner’s penalty attempt to hit the upright after three minutes.
Rams started to assert their authority on the match, and finally made the breakthrough in the 17th minute, with some neat off-loads and quick play making the ball look like a hot potato to find its way into the hands of Tom Vooght to touch down.
The try had a big impact on Cambridge, seemingly shaking them from a solid start to retreat into their shells a bit. It meant they became a bit edgy and nervous with what they were attempting, at the same time as the Rams were growing in confidence.
Easy possession was again surrendered and a cross-field kick from Andrew Humberstone reached the hands of the flying Henry Bird, who was caught just before the line, but Rams recycled play for Jamie Guttridge to touch down to make it 12-0.
After Gareth Baxter had been sin-binned for a technical offence, with the penalty count rising against Cambridge, the impressive Bird fielded a clearing kick and ran it straight back at the hosts, off-loading to Kieran Leicester who in turn put in Vooght for his second try.
It was not how the first league match after so long away was supposed to go, especially at home, but Cambridge got on the front foot from the off in the second period, and Rams may consider themselves fortunate not to have a player sent to the sin-bin as they conceded four penalties inside the 22 in the first six minutes.
But just as it looked like Kieran Frost had got over the line for a try for the hosts, he knocked on in the act of grounding the ball.
Minutes later, Rams capitalised on a misplaced pass and went on the counter attack to move play wide for Leicester to touch down, and Humberstone’s conversion made it 24-0.
Having made such an encouraging start to the period, it could have knocked Cambridge off their stride but it had the opposite effect.
They edged their way back inside the Rams’ 22, and finally bore the fruits of their labour as Rayner’s grubber kick was collected by Matt Hema to race on to and score, with Rayner converting.
That hope was soon diminished when another cross-field kick by Humberstone was collected by Connor Hayhow to sprint clear and score to make it 29-7, and then Bird took a pass on halfway and raced clear to touch down to increase Rams’ lead to 34-7.
Cambridge then rose to the challenge as the game became much more open, getting on the front foot to take the play to the visitors.
They were finding the space in behind the Rams’ defensive line, and a second try came when a quick tap penalty was taken by Kieran Duffin and passed straight into the arms of Hema to bulldoze his way over the line. Joe Tarrant converted to make it 34-14.
There was woe in the 73rd minute as a great break by Hema led to possession being off-loaded to Billy Walker in support, and Jake McCloud was offering an equally good line to take the pass but, with no opponent nearby, just as he seemed set to touch down under the posts, he dropped the ball and knocked on.
They did not let this play on their minds though, as minutes later, Will Wand scythed a way through the pitch and, after being held up just short, play was recycled for McCloud to apply the finishing touch, with Tarrant converting.
Two bonus points were in the bag with the final play of the game.
Prop Anthony Marris had been sent to the sin bin after a series of infringements by the Rams and, from the subsequent penalty, Cambridge set up a catch and drive from a line-out which saw Ben Brownlie touch down from close range.
Tarrant then landed the extras to take them within seven points of their victors as the final whistle went.
It was certainly an entertaining return for National League rugby for the first time since March 2020 and while Cambridge will be disappointed to have lost, they will great heart from the way they played in the final 20 minutes to get two bonus points.
It will just be a case of not giving themselves such an uphill battle by that point in games to come.
Cambridge: Tarrant; Green, Hema, Koteczky, Patrick; Rayner, Veenendaal; Morley, Brownlie, Walker, Frost, Baxter, Bretag-Norris, Adams, Maka.
Replacements: McCloud (Adams, 41), Wand (Rayner, 56), Duffin (Veenendaal, 56).
Rams: Leicester; Bird, Bryant, Jones, Hayhow; Humberstone, Cole; Marris, Henderson, Baker, Schroter, Stapley, Guttridge, Vooght, Stapley.
Replacements: McDonnell-Roberts (Marris, 41), Taylor (Guttridge, 60), Marris (Baker, 60), Moffitt (Henderson, 69), James (Bryant, 69), Monye (Cole, 75).
Scorers: 17min Vought try - Humberstone con (0-7), 31 Guttridge try (0-12), 40+1 Vooght try (0-17), 51 Leicester try - Humberstone con (0-24), 56 Hema try - Rayner con (7-24), 59 Hayhow try (7-29), 62 Bird try (7-34), 62 Hema try - Tarrant con (14-34), 78 McCloud try - Tarrant con (21-34), 80+5 Brownlie try - Tarrant con (28-35).
Sin bin: Cambridge - Baxter (technical offence, 38); Rams - Marris (technical offence, 80).