Back in March I wrote an article about the end of RFU Cup competitionsand what, if anything, should replace them (UPDATE 18 MAY – RFU Cups will continue). An informal poll I ran showed a preference for sticking with the local Cup competitions run by the sub-counties and if this season’s Suffolk Cup competition is anything to go by then I would wholeheartedly agree.
A couple of seasons ago Suffolk revamped their knockout competition to be played in three tiers with clubs being placed in the relevant tier based on their league positions at the end of the previous season. The Suffolk Shield is the lowest tier played near the start of the season and includes non-league clubs as well as those at the bottom end of the RFU league structure with the winners, this season Ipswich YM, going forward to the next tier, the Suffolk Plate. I managed to watch a couple of Plate games, Brightlingsea 0-32 Southwold and Harwich 34-0 Wattisham, both played midweek under lights at Colchester, bad weather preventing the clubs finding a free Saturday to play on.
Ipswich YM have had a marvellous season, comfortably winning Eastern Counties Division Two and the 2nd team winning Division Two of the Suffolk league, while a 17-15 Plate quarter-final win over Woodbridge and a 23-20 semi-final victory against Harwich, both clubs playing in Eastern Counties One, put them in the final against Southwold. Both the finalists were due to go forward to the Suffolk Cup with the top-placed clubs in the county but with continued weather delays both teams generously agreed to forgo that right so the Cup competition started without them. When the Plate final was eventually played Southwold won 19-11 stopping a hat-trick of victories over higher opposition for Ipswich YM.
The top half of the Cup draw had an odd look to it as the Plate runners-up were due to play Ipswich who themselves withdrew claiming they had never entered in the first place. This meant that the winner of the first round game between Colchester and Bury St Edmunds, a repeat of the 2010 final, would see the winners go straight through to the 2011 final. The two highest-placed Suffolk clubs had already played each other in London Division One where they were third and fourth, each winning their home tie, and Colchester had won last season’s final after making a second-half comeback.
The game was played at Colchester on a Tuesday evening with 200-300 spectators and I would say that it was the most exciting game I have watched this season (Bury match report Colchester match report). Bury’s powerful forwards helped their side to retain the lion’s share of possession and drove them to a hard earned 13-3 lead with 20 minutes to go. As the Bury side began to tire Colchester got more of the ball and spread it wide on every occasion but Bury’s defence was excellent. A brace of penalties saw Colchester close the gap to 13-9 and a desperate last 10 minutes saw Bury repel every attack Colchester threw at them until with the very last move of the game Colchester found the extra man to score in the corner and win by a single point.
Meanwhile in the other half of the draw Stowmarket were emulating Ipswich YM with giant-killing acts of their own. Stowmarket have won Eastern Counties Division One and in the Cup first round took on Sudbury who play two divisions higher, beating them 34-25. Then in the semi-final they had a big win over Mersea Island with whom they will be swapping leagues next season.
The May Day final saw 400-500 people come to Colchester’s Mill Road ground on a sunny although windy day, but the difference of three divisions was too much for Stowmarket to overcome and despite battling right to the final whistle Colchester ran out 61-5 winners (match report and pictures).
For me, this year’s competition had nearly all the elements of success; teams from every level with the chance to win a trophy, games played midweek under lights and on Saturdays with a Bank Holiday Sunday final, co-operation between clubs to get matches played (with some encouragement from competition organiser Simon Lord!), teams winning over higher-placed opposition, and large numbers of appreciative spectators helping to boost bar revenue and confirming the popularity of local Cups.
In Norfolk, North Walsham won a close Cup final 20-18 against Diss at a well-attended game, and I understand that most of the games at all levels were played. However in Cambridgeshire there have been problems this season with the lower tier competitions being abandoned. if you have a view or news about the competitions in those counties please post a comment or drop me an email.
My hope is that with extra free weekends for most clubs before and after Christmas next season the County Cups will grow in prominence and importance and the absence of any national knock-out competition will reawaken the spirit of friendly rivalry, playing for local bragging rights without the pressure of league points.