by Craig Wright
In my many years of watching rugby to date, I’ve had the pleasure of watching my fair share of dramatic matches.
Very few, however, can boast the thrills provided by Stirling’s BUCS Cup clash with the University of Liverpool this afternoon.
In their opening match of the 2017/18 BUCS Trophy, the home side welcomed their visitors from Merseyside having won both of their opening league matches, including an impressive away victory against pre-season title rivals Aberdeen.
That form meant that expectations were high ahead of kick-off, and Stirling’s Chris Yuill made sure his side got off to the perfect start. Making a superb solo break from just outside the Liverpool 22, the scrum-half had too much pace for the cover defence, scoring near the posts to hand Jacob Adamson a simple conversion. Two minutes on the clock, and the home side led 7-0.
Liverpool hit back after eight minutes, making the most of some slack defence from Stirling to cross for their opening try. With the conversion ricocheting off the upright, however, the home side’s lead remained intact.
With the wind at their backs, though, it was Stirling who were beginning to take control of the game. They were rewarded with their second try on 19 minutes, as Ronan Kerr’s counter-attacking run and out-the-back offload found Adamson. The winger, in turn, drew the last man before supplying the scoring pass to Stuart Allison, with the flanker cantering under the posts for the score.
Not only were Stirling showing their offloading prowess, but the forward pack were also beginning to get in on the act. A rolling maul was driven over the try-line from Liverpool 22 on the half-hour mark, Fergus Bradbury the man to profit and touch down. Adamson’s third conversion of the half meant that his side took a 21-5 lead into the break, a seemingly comfortable advantage.
That advantage was further cushioned two minutes after the break by a potential try of the season contender from the men in green. A full 85 metres from the Liverpool try-line, captain James Couper launched a scintillating counter-attack, linking up with winger Ryan Flett, whose pace took him to halfway before a tremendous offload found Allison on the inside. With Owen Jarvie in support, it was a simple matter for the Stirling back-row to send his team-mate over the line, to the delight of the home support.
Yet credit must go to Liverpool. Faced with a 26-5 deficit, the Merseysiders refused to panic. With the wind now on their side, they were able to pin Stirling inside their own half, and made the most of their opportunities. A quick tap penalty saw them cross for their second try, before forward power proved too much for the Stirling defence to deal with. When their winger took advantage of a Stirling knock-on to race over for a try, Liverpool confirmed that their comeback was well and truly on, trailing by just two points with ten minutes to go.
Stirling needed a spark, and it arrived in the shape of Couper on 71 minutes. Stepping inside the Liverpool cover defence, the full-back sprinted over the line to score, seemingly securing his side’s passage into the next round. The conversion, however, sailed wide, leaving Stirling’s lead at 31-24, and Liverpool with some semblance of hope.
It was hope they duly latched on to. With just 90 seconds remaining, the visitors rumbled their way over the try line once more, with the try awarded by the referee. The conversion was nailed from out wide, levelling the scores at 31-31 as the final whistle blew.
Thought that would be the end of the tension? You would be wrong. Confusion reigned as players, coaches, supporters and even officials tried to work out what the correct procedure in this scenario was. After lengthy consultation with the BUCS website, it was determined that 20 minutes of extra time would be played, with a break after 10 minutes for water, motivational speeches, and a significant intake of oxygen.
To coin a sporting cliché, you could cut the tension with a knife on the touchline as the first period got underway. That tension amongst the home supporters was eased somewhat when Euan Watt kicked a penalty with two minutes on the clock, and was eased yet more when another rolling maul resulted in the first try of extra-time for the home side. Watt’s conversion was successful, sending Stirling into the interval with a 41-31 lead.
A game which had seen so many instances of attacking brilliance produced yet another just minutes after the restart, and it proved to be one of the most popular scores of the afternoon. With the referee holding an advantage to Stirling, prop Billy Dineen dinked a cross-field kick over the Liverpool defence, with Adamson racing onto it to score in the corner. With a 46-31 lead, the scoring would now surely cease. Right?
Wrong. Liverpool once again responded, as a break up the middle resulted in the scrum-half diving under the posts to narrow the gap once more. Almost immediately, Stirling hit back – Dineen’s break and offload allowing Kerr to race over for the home side’s eighth try of the afternoon.
The final word in the most frantic of matches went to the visitors, as Liverpool’s winger crossed out wide for a well-worked score with the last meaningful play of the game. It would be Stirling that would hang on, however, with the final score reading 53-45 in favour of the men in green.
A meeting with either Coventry or Nottingham Trent awaits in the next round. For now though, let us all catch our breath. Extra time is tough on supporters too, you know…