Chris Bentley on all things Cockles and Exeter Chiefs
PUBLISHED: 08:13 30 April 2015 | UPDATED: 08:13 30 April 2015
Rugby was the big winner at Exmouth's promotion play-off game on Saturday.
First up, the largest crowd of the season turned out in support of the Cockles’ bid to bring National League rugby to the Imperial Ground next season. In the event, the game lived up to all of its pre-match billing and more. A fast-flowing first half saw the Mighty Muff power to a 15-0 interval lead. Indeed it could have been even more when Cockles centre Mark Wathes broke free just seconds before interval; it was only desperate defence that hauled him down just short of going over under the posts. Nevertheless a 15-point lead left home players and fans in good cheer for the half-time break.
It was a different Barnes XV that turned out in the second half. Going up a couple of gears, the Putney Boys pulled out all the stops, taking the game right back at Exmouth. It would be churlish to say that their efforts were not deserving of points. Two converted tries put them within touching distance at 15-14 as the 80 minutes moved deep into its final quarter.
Fired by the rewards of their efforts and the single-point differential, Barnes battered the Exmouth line with a series of rolling mauls from line-outs. Such was the intensity of their onslaught, yours truly took one for the team, collecting yellow 13 minutes from normal time.
Almost inevitably, Barnes’ pressure paid dividends and they scored out wide to take a 15-19 lead with time rapidly running out.
Yours truly returned for a line-out won by our Leviathan forward Stu Lowe. It was now our turn to apply the pressure; drawing a penalty try from a desperate Barnes defence. Leading 22-19 with just two minutes to go, the job looked to be done as an expectant crowd looked on.
Not so. With the very last play of normal time we conceded a penalty just about on the half way line. With no time to go for a line-out, the Barnes full back stepped up to go for a long-range goal attempt. It just scraped over to tie the game at 22-all.
Drama or what? Extra time in the play-off as the endeavours of an entire season came down to 10 minutes each way of overtime for both clubs.
With lungs bursting, legs aching and pressure aplenty, the game ebbed and flowed as players on both teams gave their all for their cause.
With the score tied in every respect the laws dictated the away team take the day in the event of deadlock.
Cockles had no choice but to go for broke. Our ambition proved costly, letting the visitors in to score, they probably would not have made it but for our adventure.
It was virtually the last play of a titanic struggle and no time for Cockles to respond. Barnes’ joy was met with a stunned silence from the Exmouth contingency.
The disappointment was palpable as the heartbreak of seeing the prize wrenched from our grasp by the narrowness of margins sunk in.
Let’s not dwell on what might have been. This was an exceptionally good season for Exmouth. Semi-finalists in the Devon Cup, second in the league and narrowly beaten in the play-off is something to shout about.
Ivybridge are among the teams promoted to our league next term with Dings Crusaders and Lydney coming down. With derbies against Brixham, Newton Abbot and Barnstaple to add to the mix, next season will present plenty of exceptional rugby at the Imperial Ground.
Meanwhile Chiefs still have some big games to play.
A disappointing first half at the Ricoh saw Wasps take control of the game. A high-intensity second half saw Chiefs rattle Di Young’s men, but for a moment’s brilliance from Joe Simpson the game could have gone either way.
Gareth Steenson’s last-gasp drop-goal secured a losing bonus point to virtually ensure Champions Cup Rugby for Devon next term but, with two to play, it’s all still there for Chiefs in the race for the top four and Premiership play-off honours!
May 17 is a date for the diary when Sale Sharks visit Sandy Park to round off Chiefs’ season. There just might be one heck of a party that night if the Exmouth raiding party for Mike Davison’s stag do is anything to go by.
First up, however, a trip Allianz Park and the mighty Saracens. It’s a big ask but if you want to be the best you must beat the best and, what’s more, I totally believe Chiefs have what it takes to be the best!
Let’s allow a week for the dust to settle on Exmouth’s disappointment and have a balanced assessment of the Cockles’ season and plans for the future in next week’s missive.
Until next time.
Stay safe, enjoy your rugby.