Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward,
Saturday saw the long awaited top of the table clash, as second placed Southport travelled to St Helens to take on leaders Ruskin Park’s 100% record,
Mike Smith was on the touch line as a large home crowd fuelled by a pre match ‘Past Players’ lunch was joined by an army of travelling away supporters and together they greeted the players for what was always going to be a close fought affair. But as the final whistle blew, it was the Southport players that greeted it with celebratory cheers as victors after a battle royal.
From the start, it was clear that the pace of the game was going to be nothing like what both teams have become accustomed too. Southport had an opportunity to take an early lead, with a long range kick at goal that drifted agonisingly to the left of the posts. And as the game settled down, a pattern in play appeared, with Ruskin looking to play a tight game based around an impressive driving maul and Southport seeking to get the ball wide despite a heavy pitch. It was Southport that created the first chances, after attacking runs from Tom Peacock and Jamie Bailey saw Southport camped on the Ruskin line. But the home defence was stout and after clearing their lines it was Ruskin’s turn to add the pressure, marching into Southport territory, aided by a series of penalties conceded by the visitors at the maul. However, twice Ruskin chose to kick to the corner to exert more pressure and twice they failed to throw in straight at the ensuing lineouts, allowing the solid Southport scrum to provide the opportunity for Danny Banks to clear their lines.
With less than ten minutes of the half left and neither team able to get on the score sheet, another long range Southport penalty wide of the posts adding to the tension, Ruskin Park were made to see the half out a man down due to dissent. Southport nearly capitalised immediately, when a relieving kick was excellently collected in the air by full back Tom Hill, before he set Bailey off in space. The centre put in an inviting kick which was just too big for Jake McMullen to chase down before he was beaten by the touchline. However, Southport kept the home side pinned in their 22, and a huge drive at a Ruskin 5m scrum saw Southport steal the ball and spread it wide. Good recycling saw Craig Pacey charging for the line, and when the prop was stopped short, the ball was spread right. A charging Bailey drew the defence and created the perfect foil for Banks to find McMullen running wide in space and over the line. McMullen converted his own try and a late long range Ruskin penalty kick that fell short of the mark ensured that Southport took a slender 0-7 lead into the break.
The second half continued at the same high tempo as the first, with neither side letting up, tackles crunching across the park and no quarter asked or given. Both sides sought to find opportunities to attack, however found the opposition defence unyielding, and chances to break the gain line at a premium. However, mid-way through the half, Southport were given the chance to extend their lead when after a penalty was awarded just inside the Ruskin half, the home team were marched back a further ten yards for indiscipline. This provided the opportunity for McMullen to take a kick at goal, and he duly stepped up and coolly slotted the ball over, shaving the inside of the post en route to a 10-point lead.
With time running out, Ruskin upped their game and increased the physicality and threw everything at Southport. But try as they might, there was no way through, and when Ruskin’s right winger did find space, he was met with a superb Bailey tackle that sent him clattering back. Ruskin resorted to route one, kicking penalties into the corner and setting up driving maul after maul in the Southport 22. But there was no way through the immovable defence and even when Ruskin were awarded a 5m scrum, the Southport pack shove their heavier opposition off the ball, and thwarted the attack. There was just time for one more Ruskin penalty, but with the time up on the clock, the home side decided to convert the penalty to rescue a losing bonus point and set up scenes of celebration for the visitors. However, as the teams marched off the field, bruised and battered, it was clear that there was mutual respect and an acknowledgement that both sets of players had given their all in an epic battle. Final score: Ruskin Park 3 Southport 10.
President Graham Ellis was justifiably proud of the enormity of the achievement of the boys in the red black and amber shirts and the incredible support from Southport. He commented "Make no mistake this was a must win game of the highest pressure against the toughest of opponents that most of the young team had never experienced before. The performance belied this as superb game management was matched by a level of maturity and commitment to stand up to the home side and support. Equally the home support was matched in numbers from Southport to create a fantastic atmosphere.
"Whilst the welcome on the pitch was as hard as to be expected off it Ruskin Park could not have been more hospitable before and after the game. Thank you to President Joe Hull and his colleagues for inviting Southport supporters to join the Past Players hot pot lunch & quiz, and the graciousness in defeat of his club in the bar afterwards. One-all in terms of the two games played this season and come what may as we both sprint for the line there is no doubt huge well earned respect for the Southport squad who may have gone into the fixture as boys but came out of it men."
The final words are best left to Head Coach Bill Nichol, justifiably bursting with pride, with a bit of help from Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made,
Honour the Southport 1XV,
Noble eighteen men.
Indeed the glory from Saturday will not fade but the focus now firmly moves to the rearranged fixture at Liverpool University next weekend. Same again men!