Midlands Intervmediate Cup Final
Leek 16 Bridgnorth 14
ANOTHER day and another huge game for Leek in this season of superlatives, which has no peer in the 91-year history of the club.
Defending their unbeaten home record against a Bridgnorth side recently bolstered by three signings, it was fair to say that the All Blacks started as favourites, as recent Bridgnorth league form indicated a surge in performance and results.
Leek would have to be at their very best and remain focused for the full 80 minutes in order to lift a cup that had been held by the likes of Lichfield and Stoke in the recent past.
Leek's top try scorer this season, James Floyd, was missing after his knee injury flared and there were doubts around scrum half Ian Harris and no 8 Luke Staton which had been concerning the coaches all week.
Fortunately, the two influential players passed fitness tests and took their places in the 22-man squad.
With Floyd absent, it meant that Dan Smith started at full back and Sam Hunt moved to centre, where he partnered Liam McDermott.
Nick Palmer and Jack Newton-Taylor were on the wings. Skipper Gary McDermott and Ian Harris were starting half backs.
Jason Milner, Bobby Cheadle and Tom Hine made up the front row with Ed Harrison and Tom Sims at lock. Andy McFadden and Ad Nettel were on the flanks with Staton in his usual place.
As this was a final, the sides were allowed seven replacements on the bench and 12 change-overs during the game. Luke Granger, Luke Hardern, James Wilson, Neil Edge, Josh Mays Woodhead, Dan Needham and Naz Narawa gave Leek options that in a normal game wouldn't have been possible.
Less than a minute into the game, Gary McDermott slotted the first points home with a penalty goal.
Six minutes in, Bridgnorth's powerful eight mauled Leek to its own five-metre line but Leek pinched the ball and were then penalised for holding on.
Will Biddell, Bridgnorth's left wing, slotted the equalising penalty at 3-3.
On 10 minutes, a promising Leek move saw Gary McDermott stepping past his opposite number and penetrating deep into the Bridgnorth 22, but an offside decision against Leek allowed Bridgnorth to clear.
Little did anyone know at that moment that Leek wouldn't trouble the Bridgnorth 22 again until the 70th minute, as the visitors stepped up the pace. Leek lost Ian Harris on 13 minutes, after aggravating his ankle injury and that brought Dan Needham into the action at scrum half.
Bridgnorth tested Leek's defence on 16 minutes and had a three-on-one overlap on the left – but a superbly-timed wrap tackle by Sam Hunt prevented a score.
Nevertheless, Bridgnorth's pressure was telling and on 23 minutes, excellent scrum half Gareth Bladen booted a high kick towards the Leek 22.
Dan Smith slightly misjudged the catch and the ball flew off his arm into the hands of the onrushing Will Crossley, who sprinted in to score.
Will Biddell couldn't add the extras but at 3-8, Bridgnorth's intent was clear and although it took until the first minute of added time for the next score, it also went to Bridgnorth.
James Wilson, recently on for the injured Staton, was judged not to have got to his feet before playing the ball after a tackle.
Bladen took the quick tap on half way and then won another 10 metres for Leek's defence not being 10 back, and Biddell stepped up to increase the Shropshire side's lead to 3-11 as the half-time whistle blew.
The second half opened with Bridgnorth on the attack again,
On 47 minutes, they won another penalty for a scrum offence and kicked for the corner lineout on Leek's five-metre line.
Leek stole the lineout but were penalised for offside and Biddell placed home his third penalty to increase the lead to 3-14.
On 55 minutes, a late tackle by Newton-Taylor after Bridgnorth's Dave Hadkiss had kicked deep into Leek's 22 met with another penalty close to Leek's line.
But Leek's heroic defence disrupted the drive and they won a penalty for Bridgnorth not releasing.
On 59 minutes, Leek ran the ball from their own 22 and finally released Newton-Taylor on the left. He was tackled midway in the Bridgnorth half and skipper Dan Griffiths was yellow carded for slowing the ball down – but Leek still couldn't find a way through. However, slowly but surely, Leek were getting more space.
Newton-Taylor had another strong run into the Bridgnorth 22 but the ball was pinched from him on the ground on 70 minutes.
The clearance kick only found Sam Hunt, now at full back, on half way. He decided to run it back and he jinked his way to the Bridgnorth five-metre line as the defence suddenly tired.
Quick ball was denied a couple of rucks later and the decision to go for three points or go for glory was an easy one for McDermott to make, although most of the home crowd thought it wrong at the time.
He calmly kicked the three points to reduce the deficit to 6-14. This decision was given a further boost when on 75 minutes, when the Leek forwards once again found themselves on the Bridgnorth five-metre line.
Another penalty and a yellow card for Craig Thomas, for repeated infringement, gifted McDermott another three points under the Bridgnorth posts and with five minutes to go at 9-14, Leek had a chance to snatch an unlikely victory.
The whole team was now working overtime to get on the front foot and when the ball was moved down a wide narrow channel, Liam McDermott, Sam Hunt and Jack Newton-Taylor combined to get into the Bridgnorth 22 again.
Taylor's offload to Hunt allowed the move to continue. A quick ruck and pass from Dan Needham to Gary McDermott had the skipper sprinting towards the Bridgnorth posts. His simple pass to Naz Narawa allowed the centre to touch down unopposed.
Unbelievably, Leek had turned the game around in a devastating 10-minute spell and McDermott had the chance, yet again, to kick the points that would defeat Bridgnorth for the third time this season.
He has stepped up so many times this season that it was no surprise when the ball bisected the posts and sent the fervent home support into rapturous applause.
Leek now have to do it all again on Easter Saturday (April 19) when they face Aspatria, from the North Lancs & Cumbria League, in the national semi-final at Esterchem Park.
This Saturday, Leek travel to Ludlow to renew their league promotion bid.