(CRFU): The Final of the National Mixed Touch Championships 2015 was one heck of a great game – the might and majesty of Maples Galaxy against the strength and spirit of SteppingStones. With a full complement of twelve players, Maples Galaxy looked rested and relaxed stepping onto the field for the Final. A relatively easy Semi-final against Team Bye had produced no injuries and plenty of time to recuperate.
SteppingStones, on the other hand, were down the barest of bare bones with barely a substitute to be seen. Their semi-final clash with Island Air had been a fantastic game and showed the true heart of the ‘Stones, managing to come away with a telling, if tiring, one point margin victory. Hats off to Island Air who came within a hair’s breadth of a crack at the big prize.
And so to the Final. In searing heat that burned the lungs (and that was just sitting in the stands) it was Maples who took an early lead through an exquisite, if unexpected, side-step by Captain Adam Huckle. Continuing his amazing form from the last game, Huckle left the diminutive Monty Montgomery grasping at thin air as he pivoted on a sixpence and dived over for the score.
However, what one Captain can do, the other can do better. SteppingStones’ Squadron Leader Morgan Shelver stepped up with a fine brace, the pick being the second where he cunningly looped around to receive a pop pass from Monty. He dashed 30 metres to put the Stones ahead. The scoreline was then increased when Lauren Christie scored a wondrous try taking the opportunity to sprint through a gap wider than the Andreas Fault on Armageddon Day. As she glided over the ground I was reminded of her namesake Linford Christie (I’m reliably informed there is no relation) sprinting to Olympic Gold. She celebrated like she had just won the Olympic Final too. Nice one.
SteppingStones were on top for the moment but how would energy levels cope given the length of the game. Their resolve was to be tested even further when disaster struck. Shelver took an innocuous touch in centre-field only to fall to the ground as if taken out by a lone sniper. A pulled calf muscle certainly feels like a 0.50mm bullet has hit the back of your leg. He was to take no further part in the game and SteppingStones’ already beleaguered resources were cut significantly. If they were to hold onto their lead against the marauding Galactic hordes it would have to be heroism on a Rorke’s-Driftian scale.
Maples’ Dave Acutt got one back with a canny dive under a lunging touch, before Scott McCarty showed great hands to catch a rifling low pass by Montgomery inside the 5m line to dive over. Dano O’Connor chimed in with an excellent score, splitting the defence with his trademark burst of speed off the mark. With scores being traded like this, the game had more ding-dong than Big Ben tumbling down 14 flights of stairs and crashing into the finalists of an Campanologist Convention’s Christmas Bell-Ring-a-thon.
As the game approached half-time, controversy then ensued when Jane Hale-Smith scored what she thought was a superb score only to be chalked off by the referee saying the ball had slipped from her grasp moments before the touch down. She was not best pleased. It was a marginal call but the ref is always right so the teams went in at half-time with a 3-4 lead to SteppingStones.
First blood in the second half went to the ‘Stones when Scott McCarty, who was having an inspirational game, intercepted a Huckle howitzer and sprinted the length of the pitch. He was chased all the way by Ian Smith but the gap could not be closed. In truth, the race gassed both men and little was left in the tank after that.
But one thing we know about Maples Galaxy is they never know when they’re beaten. Hiroo Onoda, the WW2 Japanese soldier who held out in the Philippine jungle for the best part of thirty years would have been proud of their determination to never surrender.
Who would be a Galactic Hero? First to put her hand up was Nicky Keogh. Scoring the best try of the day, she pirouetted and pivoted around both McCarty and Montgomery to score and bring fire back into the Maples’ belly. The scores were levelled when Vikki Piaso dotted down in the corner after fine work by Riley Mullen, who jinked and pranced like a dressage pony before looping a killer pass to Piaso.
The game started to resemble a titanic tug-of-war, each team giving their all but with few overall gains. Jo Ziegler, Elaine Kerr and Hugh Anderson put in a real shift for the Galaxy, Kerr nearly dislocating a finger trying to stop the elusive Montgomery. With Shelver’s absence, Marc Randall did some hard yards for SteppingStones often directing traffic from dummy half, with Karen Hart and Jayme Farrell immense both in defence and in the early settles. Then slowly, ever so slowly, Maples started to exert pressure so it was against the run of play when McCarty summoned up strength from somewhere to score on the wing with a fine run-around try.
Maples started the squeeze again and SteppingStones were now just fingertips away from conceding tries. Monty had to dive full length after a blistering 40m run to halt an explosive O’Connor break and Kim Smith did much the same to prevent a certain try. Ian Smith even crossed the try line for Maples but as dummy half he could not score and couldn’t find a pass to a free teammate either, all well chaperoned by covering defenders. Eventually, and inevitably, the dam broke and the line was crossed when Chandra Friesen snaffled up a pass to make it 6-6.
As the final whistle blew each team realized that nothing had yet been decided and a Drop-Off would be required. Each team starts with five players and then loses a player every couple of minutes until it is just three-a-side. First to score wins.
On and on the game went and, like a DVD Special Edition Compendium of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, it was seemingly never-ending. Until. With just three-a-side, Dave Acutt took the ball on halfway and seeing the smallest of gaps he vaulted over the outstretched lunge of Montgomery. The line was broken, as was SteppingStones’ will to fight. He cruised through to score. Victory for Maples Galaxy. Worthy Champions? Most definitely, but they knew they had been in one helluva game. SteppingStones had put in a valiant performance but it was not quite enough.
Victorious Captain Adam Huckle said, “It was an excellent contest and great fun. One team had to emerge victorious, but to quote the Duke of Wellington: “It was a damn close-run thing!” True enough.