Lancaster Vs Blackpool 1st May 2004
Written by: Richard de la Riviere
The improvements to 2003 are almost immeasurable. Coach Kevin McGuffog and his assistant Darren Clark have moulded a team that, once again, have strong forwards but play in a more structured manner with clever distributors of the ball in midfield and quick players in the three-quarters looking to capitalise. The Walkabout Inn on Dalton Square have invested heavily in the club and the sound preparation coupled with a sprinkling of new signings meant that the absence of Dave McVernon, Liam Hall and Shaun Humphries, easily the best forwards in 2003, didnt matter a jot.
The home side gave debuts to Peter Edwards who had a storming game in the second row and Brian Birkett who, at prop, made a similar impression. Russell Birkett shifted to loose forward from the wing and will unquestionably figure there again after a performance that saw him unanimously voted man of the match. Chris Helme was another significant forward. Having played less than 24 hours earlier for Heysham Atoms, Helme played for over an hour and dominated the Blackpool front row.
Phil Casson and Matthew Craven filled the centre positions. Casson has been signed from Hindpool Tigers whilst Craven has played for Widnes Academy and in the Navy. Both players made a number of breaks, both scored tries and both provided excellent service to the wings.
Lancaster were keen to make a good start to the game. Too often in 2003, the team conceded an early try yet this time Andy Garnett collected a clever Keith Hartlebury grubber kick to score out wide in the third minute. Neil Walker added the conversion for a 6-0 lead.
Last season Lancaster led Blackpool 4-0 early on but collapsed soon after. The team needed to build on their early score to avoid a repeat of this and, on the back of easy metres made by Casson, Russell Birkett and Edwards, they did just that. Brian Birkett picked up a loose ball, stepped inside the cover defence and put his side 10-0 up. Two minutes later, new scrum half Steve Hartle kicked ahead, and Randall Raines chased and scored. Twelve minutes into the new season and Lancaster led 14-0.
Minutes later Garnett, Russell Birkett and Mark Squires combined on the last tackle to take Lancaster close and further breaks were made by Birkett and Craven that saw try scoring machine Andy Garnett sprinting towards the corner. However, on this occasion, superb cover defence saw Garnett tackled into touch.
Blackpool finally opened their account shortly before half time when scrum half Jack Heald jinked his way over the tryline and despite dominating the first half hour, Lancasters half time lead was only 14-6. The momentum had begun to swing towards the Sea Eagles and coaches Kevin McGuffog and Darren Clark had to deliver a half time talk to reverse this. Whatever they said had the desired effect as Lancaster posted a further 26 points in the second stanza.
Prop forward Brian Birkett kicked on the last tackle ten minutes into the second half, chased his own kick and wrestled the solitary Blackpool defender to the ground with such ferocity that the ball was spilled. From the resulting scrum, his namesake Russell fed Craven with a majestic short ball to send the centre galloping to the posts. Walker inexplicably missed the simple conversion but Lancaster led 18-6.
A Steve Hartle offload after a mazy run saw Garnett knock on close to the line. Then, a forty metre break by Craven almost brought a try to Rob Shaw but the club captain couldnt quite scoop up the pass. Soon after, a sensational bust from Chris Helme resulted in his offload to the unmarked Gavin Winder being ruled forward. The video later proved this to be an incorrect decision and Winder was denied a thoroughly deserved try. He hit the ball up strongly all afternoon and was one of many players to get the better of his opponent.
Chances to score were arriving in nearly every set of six. Russell Birkett drove Lancaster into the twenty, his pass outwide bounced at the feet of Casson and the debutant showed great composure to dribble the ball soccer style past the full back to score the fifth home try of the afternoon. Garnett was then denied; called back for offside as he set off on an eighty metre dash after intercepting. From the penalty that followed, Blackpool mounted a rare attack and their best player on the day, Tony Clark, scored by the posts.
Despite this, the Lancaster backs were having a field day. Greg Sykes fed a scrum twenty five metres out and Mark Squires surged into the line from full back to take the ball from Neil Walker. At full pace, he romped to the posts. Walker finally kicked his second goal and Lancaster led 28-12. On as a substitute for the injured Raines, Squires excited the home fans all afternoon and he repeated the dose three minutes later, this time from seventy metres. In this form he will score several more tries during the season. Then, on the last play of the afternoon, the irrepressible Russell Birkett, sponsored by Brooks Nightclub, broke through the tiring Blackpool defence and raced fifty metres to cap his best performance in a Lancaster jersey.
Next week Lancaster travel to Bolton Le Moors. In 2003 they beat Lancaster by margins of eight and eighteen and will almost certainly provide tougher opposition than Blackpool. The coach will leave the Holiday Inn at 12pm and supporters are most welcome to travel with the players.
LANCASTER 40 (Garnett, B Birkett, Raines, Craven, Casson, Squires 2, R Birkett tries. Walker 4 goals) beat BLACKPOOL 12 ( Heald, Clark tries. Green 2 goals)
WALKABOUT INNS MAN OF THE MATCH: Russell Birkett.
LANCASTER: 1 Randall Raines, 2 Andy Garnett, 3 Phil Casson, 4
Matthew Craven, 5 Gavin Winder, 6 Neil Walker, 7 Steve Hartle, 8 Chris
Helme, 9 Keith Hartlebury (captain), 10 Brian Birkett, 11 Peter Edwards,
12 Rob Shaw, 13 Russell Birkett. Subs: 14 Greg Sykes, 15 Martin Pike,
16 Gary Wood, 17 Mark Squires, 18 Paul Roebuck 19 Ed Gates.
North West Division Summary
Lancaster 40 v 12 Blackpool Sea Eagles
Two tries in three minutes just after the half hour from Matt Williams gave CHESTER the impetus for victory against CREWE in the battle of the Wolves at Crossfields. Crewe were competitive throughout in front of a large crowd, winger Jon Wilcock who also crossed twice their best. Centres Paul Curphey with three tries and Drew Povey with two were Chester's main strike threat, Williams completing his hat trick in the 76th minute. Late scores to Chris Arnold and Peter Royal were due reward for the hosts.
A hat trick by BOLTON LE MOORS man of the match scrum half Nik Cook saw the RLC Shield holders begin the season in fine style at combative LIVERPOOL BUCCANEERS. Hooker Kieran Lacey had given the Buccs an early lead,Damon Wright replying before Cook crossed twice in quick succession. The first of Mark Yates' two touchdowns made it 10-20 at the break, Simon Briggs and Cook ensuring an away day success.
New look WIDNES SAINTS, playing only one player from the St Maries Conference side and coached by Bobbie Goulding, were too strong for the gallant NORTH WALES COASTERS. A disparity in size, fitness and pace told as Saints built a 60-6 half time lead; Chris Barr, Stuart Martin with two tries each and Shaun McWhirter with a brace and seven goals the stars. Man of the match for the Coasters, prop Craig Hamman never stopped trying and several of their young performers showed real promise.
LANCASTER opened their campaign with a win, running in eight tries to see off BLACKPOOL SEA EAGLES. Russell and Brian Birkett both crossed for the hosts; Mark Squires scoring twice, Andy Garrett, Phil Casson, Andrew Raines and Matthew Brown also claiming home touchdowns. Barry Tucker was Blackpool's best who replied with touchdowns to Tony Clarke and Jack Heald.
From the Axe - By Rob Shaw
At this time last year, the novice Lancaster team travelled to Carlisle and was given a 50 point lesson in rugby. What a difference a year has made. We all know that one swallow doesn't make a summer, but the omens are looking slightly better!
The comfortable victory over Blackpool was made all the more sweeter in the knowledge that the points were secured without the services of several key members of the squad. Dave McVernon chose to get married as Lancaster simultaneously kicked off their 2004 season. Hard-hitting prop Liam Hall sat out the game with the recurrence of a troublesome leg injury, whilst the eagerly awaited debut of Mick Spencely had to be postponed due to work commitments.
When this powerful trio return, the coaching team are going to have one hell of a selection problem; on Saturday there were already a number of players disappointed at not getting a game that would perhaps have walked into last year's team.
Additionally, a significant portion of the team were playing their second game in less than 24 hours, with the traditional winter season finishing on Friday night. Just 17 hours later Lancaster kicked off the summer campaign.
As if these circumstances were not bad enough, the Barrow contingent were involved in a nasty RTA whilst travelling to the game at Giant Axe. Fortunately no one was seriously injured, but the resulting delay certainly caused a few heads to be scratched in the build up to the KO. Driver Phil Casson's performance didn't seem to be adversely affected, his memorable day continued with an excellent display in the centres, crowned with a fabulous try seemingly out of nothing in which Phil demonstrated dribbling skills of which Beckham would be proud. Alex Ferguson keep your hands off.
Andy Garnet still seems to be in the rich vein of form demonstrated throughout the winter with the Heysham Atoms. He took just 3 minutes to register Lancaster's first try of the season, and was denied another in the second half when his speed off the mark deceived the ref into assuming he was offside. Andy was hauled back after cleverly reading the Blackpool play and taking an interception whilst the Lancaster line was being defended. The tale of the tape shows that the ref was indeed wrong, with Andy actually setting off from behind his own try line for what would have been one of the trys of the season. However, it was not to be.
Mark Squires demonstrated his lightening pace with a brace of trys, and proved what a valuable addition to the squad he is. Another new face in the backs is Matt Craven, whose experience with Widnes Academy and the Navy RL was evident with a number of penetrating breaks and a well taken try, set up by the influential Neil Walker.
On a day where there was huge competition for the Man of the Match, one man stood out like a beacon from the rest of the team, and that was just his hair do. Russell Birkett's switch to the forwards has been a revelation, bringing some much needed pace and side-step into the pack. Fellow pack star Chris Helme must have pushed Russ all the way for the Man of the Match award, demonstrating outstanding power in his running all afternoon.
Thoughts are now turning to the looming Origin game that is to be played on the evening of Tuesday May 11th. A game guaranteed to be filled with passion and will pitch mate-against-mate depending upon which side of benefit bridge they were born. Judging by the comments and digs to which I have been privy in recent training sessions, there will be a lot of arguments settled in this match. It is shaping up to be a classic forwards Vs backs battle, with Morecambe seemingly having the pick of the area's top forwards, and Lancaster shaping up to be the pacy side. Time will soon tell which town will take out the title of Morecambe Bay 'Town of Origin'- and I for one can't wait.
Personally it would be a huge honour to captain Lancaster to another famous victory over Morecambe, and I know Keith (the Morecambe captain) feels the same. Its been a long time since the last victory - I just hope its not another 100 years before the next!
Gallery - Photography by Nicola Moss