STOKE-ON-TRENT RFC ensured that one set of supporters from the city returned to the Midlands with a spring in their step and a smile on their faces after their team came from behind to win the RFU Intermediate Cup final at Twickenham, 16-10 against Aylesford Bulls.
This was a traditional ‘game of two halves’, with the Bulls having much the better of the first-half without being able to translate their advantage into points in the face of a well-organised rearguard by the Midlands side and Stoke raising their game significantly in the second period to claim the prize.
Stoke snatched the lead after 10 minutes on their first incursion into Bulls territory when fly-half Steve Talbot landed a penalty for an offence at the breakdown, but the remainder of the half saw the Men of Kent the more threatening side.
Ben Summers on the right flank presented a constant menace whenever he had the ball, but Stoke managed to regroup effectively when he was put into space.
The Bulls also carried plenty of timber up front and it was from another driving maul that they went ahead after 23 minutes. Strong pressure under the posts left Stoke too thinly spread and flanker Sam Carroll had no trouble driving through for the score.
Though the Bulls had territorial supremacy and went very close again when wingman Steve Stewart was only denied by the referee’s call as he touched the corner flag going over after 36 minutes, there was no further score, leaving the Bulls 5-3 ahead at the break.
That lead was soon removed after the interval when Talbot was offered another penalty shot for an obstruction offence and he obliged with a fine strike from 40 yards.
Stoke were much more competitive now and started to pose problems themselves, only the smart intervention of centre Elliott Johnston averting serious problems when his opposite number Simon Price intercepted and raced away.
The Midlands side and Price were not to be denied, however, and they pulled further ahead on 53 minutes when the centre was on hand to collect the ball from prop James Salt near the line for his side’s first try and an 11-5 lead.
The Bulls earned marks for bravery, but no points, when they elected to take a scrum rather than a penalty under the posts, but they continued to plug away and as both sides showed signs of fatigue, they set up a tense finale with a try on 75 minutes.
A good passage of ball retention was the key to success as Stoke’s defensive network finally gave out and lock Peter Webdale had the pace and the energy to gallop to the corner for a try that Harvey could not convert.
Desperation then delivered the final painful act of the afternoon for the Bulls. They tried a final counter attack from behind their own line and when the ball was spilled by Summers, centre Dickens pounced for the final try of the game.
“In the second-half we managed to get our hands on the ball and were able to play our own game,” said skipper and scrum-half Chris Rowley: “We started to get on top and looked quite dangerous. Fair play to the Bulls forwards, they dominated in the first-half, but we tackled well. If it hadn’t been for that defensive effort, we wouldn’t have been in the game at half-time.
“It’s a great end to the season. We let ourselves down a bit early on with one or two defeats that took us out of the promotion race, but the Cup run has been great and to come here and win has been a real thrill.”
Aylesford Bulls: A Sutherland; B Summers, E Johnston, M Henry, S Stewart; D Harvey, L Cherrington; R Nanson, R Weir, S Ireland capt, P Webdale, E Finley, J Stringer, S Carroll, T Sullivan.
Replacements all used: D Baker, S Hollister, T Vereivalu, M O’Neill, A Martyn, L Woodger, ATakala
Stoke: P White; G Joss, S Price, W Dicken, R Spruce; S Talbot, C Rowley capt; R Brown, S Yorke, J salt, J Grmshaw, D Bennion, B Cornwall, R Meredith, J Cordall
Replacements all used: P McPherson, P Ramage, J Bricknell, M Hulme, S Currie, P Wilshaw, C Robb.
Referee: N Cockburn (RFU)