As the league season ends the finals of the various County Cups take place, and in Eastern Counties that is multiplied by three as Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk all hold their own competitions.
Yesterday I went to the North East Essex Coast for the Suffolk Plate final between Clacton and Southwold which was an intriguing game even before the kick-off. Clacton play in Essex League One while Southwold play in Eastern Counties League One, so here was an opportunity to see the relative strengths of those leagues. Both sides’ league seasons had been disappointing with Southwold finishing tenth in their league of twelve teams while Clacton were placed fifth out of ten thanks to bonus point wins in their last two games.
But it was the friendly rivalry between the two coaches which I was looking at. Matt Mahoney and Dave Harvey had been coaching the same youth side at Colchester RFC where both their sons played, travelling in from Clacton and Ipswich respectively. When their sons moved on Matt became head coach of his home club while Dave has recently been appointed interim coach at Southwold with a view to a more permanent position next season. There was a good amount of friendly banter between them in the bar before they left to prepare their teams.
As kick-off approached the numbers in the bar swelled as supporters from around the area arrived, including players and members from Colchester, Harwich & Dovercourt and Mistley Rugby Clubs. Soon after kick off the sunshine was replaced by wind and rain making expansive play difficult. I had watched both these sides earlier in the season and expected the bigger Southwold team to win but Clacton disrupted their set piece and won regular turnovers to deny their opposition good quality possession. The half time score was 3-6 to Southwold reflecting the good defence from both sides.
The second half burst into life minutes after the restart with an individual piece of enterprise from centre turned flanker Ben Buxey. He received the ball on the right wing with a bit of space to run, and having outsprinted a couple of players he chipped the covering defence and gathered the ball to score a try that delighted the crowd giving Clacton a 10-6 lead. Southwold tried to respond but Clacton continued to disrupt their scrums and line-outs and looked to have sealed the game when full-back Dean Tully grounded a kick through, only for referee Justin Jupp, who had a very good game in charge, to rule that it had just gone over the dead ball line.
A penalty brought Southwold to within a point with 20 minutes to go and with the sun now shining both sides produced some very good rugby. Southwold started to use their bigger back row and centres more effectively to put Clacton on the back foot and sure enough a penalty was awarded only for the kick to go wide. With time running out Southwold won another penalty in front of the posts and this time it was converted to give them a 12-10 lead with time almost gone.
To their credit Clacton restarted quickly and putting the Southwold forwards under pressure they turned over the ball again and drove to the 22. Tully stood 15 yards back and called for the ball, seemingly taking an age to set himself while the Southwold defence rushed up, but he drop-kicked the ball high and straight to bisect the posts, leaving the large crowd speechless with admiration or disappointment depending on their allegiance, and winning Clacton the game 13-12 the Suffolk Plate for the first time since 1993 and the third time in total. Suffolk President Rod Baxter presented the trophy to captain Jake Buxey and celebrations continued long into the night.
For me, this was a confirmation of all that is good in grass-roots rugby; a competitive game played in good spirit with great support from the area and Southwold being generous in defeat. While County Cup competitions continue to bring rugby people together and provide dramatic games they will always have a future.
Pictures from the game