This was an epic battle, as the Woldsmen suffered an heroic defeat in a game between two of the league’s front-runners : it certainly fitted the bill. The Woldsmen arrived at Penrith to find conditions above ground good and a pitch that, although heavy, at least was not frozen.
Stephenson returned to the centre and Gray at scrum-half, with Ramsden and Dodds coming in for the Driffield skipper Mewburn and Brumfield who were both unavailable through illness.
The game started predictably with both sides probing hard, the early exchanges proving even. The two sides play very similar styles of rugby and took any opportunity to run the ball. Driffield struck first after 8 minutes when fast ball allowed Stephenson to make a break down the right-hand side, where he made good ground before off-loading to Piercy who in turn found Furbank on hand to breeze over under the posts. Dinsdale slotted the conversion. Penrith 0 – 7 Driffield
The Woldsmen looked confident with ball in hand and kicked well when options were limited. One clearance kick in particular from Piercy relieving the pressure. However, Penrith were soon back in Woldsmen territory and when Driffield lost scrum ball in their own 22 a series of short drives resulted in a score out wide on the right for the hosts, Jackson missing with the conversion. Penrith 5 – 7 Driffield
The Driffield pack were holding their own in the scrum and won a penalty which they ran only to lose to a handling error. Penrith kicked deep but Dinsdale was on hand to execute one of his trademark gliding runs to make good ground. But, from the ensuing ruck, Penrith forced a turnover and pushed back into the visitors’ territory. Driffield transgressed at the breakdown and Penrith kicked the penalty to take the lead. Penrith 8 – 7 Driffield.
The Woldsmen’s keenness to run was evident but in difficult conditions did result in a few more handling errors than they would have normally expected and loss of territory which a lively Penrith back line always looked capable of capitalising on. However it was Driffield that struck next courtesy of another fine run from Piercy, seizing on a wayward clearance kick he ran hard before finding the ever-present Burns. He, in turn, off-loaded to Stephenson to storm over under the posts ensuring that Dinsdale had no problem kicking Driffield into a lead. Penrith 8 – 14 Driffield
Although in the lead, mistakes began to creep in and, when Furbank miscued a clearance kick out on the full, Penrith took full advantage, taking the line out and driving towards the visitors’ line. A series of short drives resulted in them scoring under the posts to regain the lead. Penrith 15 – 14 Driffield.
Driffield soon found themselves back in the Penrith half. Usual suspects Douglas and Burns carrying well and Gray sniping away at the home defence. Mewburn G had come on to replace Cullen and was also making his mark. But although there was much endeavour the home defence held firm. Driffield conceded a penalty for holding on and then another for not being 10, and Penrith’s Jackson punished them with a raking touch-find that set up a line out for the home team in good field position. They won the ball, slinging it left and with some slick handling sliced through the visitors’ centre to score, again under the posts, making the score at Half Time Penrith 22 – 14 Driffield.
Gray had to leave the field at the break to be replaced by the irrepressible Robinson. Driffield threw all they had at their hosts as the second half got under way, with Dodds showing up well, Ramsden always in the mix and Mewburn always looking likely to break through. Furbank at 10 was having another good game making a great break, running with strength and purpose. Burns showed good handling skills to get the ball to Dinsdale who once again showed his pace and guile to make good ground. Zavatti and Blenkinsop were working hard to carry ball and when Penrith were caught holding on in the breakdown, Dinsdale stepped up to slot the penalty. Penrith 22 – 17 Driffield.
Penrith came back at the Woldsmen and only a fantastic covering tackle by Piercy stemmed the tide, but only for a while. As the pressure grew Penrith showed good skills to move the ball wide and score in the corner, Jackson doing very well to convert from the touch line. Penrith 29 – 17 Driffield.
Back came the visitors pulling on all their inner strength to try and break down the stubborn Penrith defence. The game was becoming very attritional as Driffield worked through 30 phases, patiently making yard after yard, eventually gaining a penalty that Furbank shunted into the corner to set up a line out. The ball was secured and after a couple of drives the ball came to Dench who powered his way over right in the corner. Dinsdale,showing a maturity beyond his years, calmly stepped up and kicked the conversion to bring Driffield within 5 points. Penrith 29 – 24 Driffield
Time was running short and Driffield hurled every ounce they had at the Penrith line. Mewburn and Furbank nearly breaking through the dogged and well-organised home defence, Robinson always looking for a sniping run or half-break. But to Penrith’s credit they held firm and when the final whistle blew they were worthy winners.
This had been an epic struggle between two top sides and in the end was always going to be decided by small margins. Driffield may look back and rue one or two too many handling errors. In the end that might have made the difference but I know the supporters who had made the journey in significant numbers, especially for an international weekend, were extremely proud of their team, and the players, though obviously disappointed, should be equally proud of their performance.
Morpeth replace Driffield at the top of the division on the back of this week’s results and Alnwick and Penrith have games in hand but one suspects that the season holds a few twists and turns yet, with Alnwick and Penrith yet to play one another and Penrith having to come to Kelleythorpe in April. Stu Cooper’s men will be in the mix right to the end.