Miners ensured a second successive Conference Cup final with a display of defensive resolve against Milford.
Roared on by an exuberant band of three coachloads of travelling supporters, Division One side Milford threw the kitchen sink, cooking utensils and contents of the cupboards at Miners in the second half after they had narrowed the gap to six points but found the home defence utterly resolute to withstand twenty minutes of unrelenting pressure. Having absorbed all that pressure Miners then showed thier clinical edge as they broke downfield and scored twice in the closing minutes to put a gloss on the scoreline and book their place in the cup final against Wigan St Patricks.
After two disappointing league setbacks on their travels Miners were able to select a number of their returning mainstays including Scott O’Brien, Andrew Groves, Andrew Hodson, Liam Coleman and Jimmy Muir, whilst giant forward Connor Partington came in for his open-age Miners’ debut after spells at Leigh East and Centurions. Lee Gittins was absent although his knee injury sustained at Skirlaugh thankfully doesn’t appear as serious as initially feared, whilst Danny Jackson and Danny Jones were both unavailable. Milford, making their second visit to Twist Lane in 2013 after a Challenge Cup second round loss in February, had Aaron Jones-Bishop at fullback whilst their travelling support included a troupe of whistle-blowers and a tom-tom drummer.
With such a partisan atmosphere Miners would have hoped to douse the visiting supporters’ enthusiasm at the earliest opportunity and they appeared to have done just that as they scored twice before Milford had become properly acquainted with the ball. From the first set Martin Gray drove the ball into Milford territory before play was spread right and Liam Coleman and Jonny Youds combined to put Adam Thomason surging past his opposite number and over by the corner, Youds adding the extras. Straight from the restart Milford’s attempt at the short kick-off backfired as Gray palmed the ball into the hands of Sean MacDonald before Miners again targeted the Marlins’ left flank where Coleman and O’Brien put Thomason away, the centre dabbing the kick into the in-goal where Groves dived to touch down by the corner flag. Milford sought a response but beyond forcing a drop-out they struggled to make much headway as their usual inspiration Josh Parle had a quiet opening to the game. On the twenty minute mark Miners were 12-0 ahead as Youds landed a penalty from thirty metres out and just three minutes later the cup holders appeared to have a firm grasp on proceedings when O’Brien and Youds made good yards to turn a Milford attack into a Miners’ chance at the other end, the score coming when O’Brien and Thomason linked up and the latter put Groves away past Martin Loveridge and in at the corner for 16-0.
Milford had been stunned by this whirlwind opening of faultless rugby by Miners but they were only temporarily stymied and had a way back into the game with two quick tries of their own just after the half hour. First Parle sparked into life as he worked a wrap-around with Ryan Oxtoby before firing the ball left where a Miners’ hand deflected it kindly for Loveridge to finish off at the corner. It was a brief intervention for Parle who was forced from the field shortly afterwards with an ankle injury but in the absence of their talisman his team-mates stepped to the plate with James Coates and James Barker enjoying tremendous games. Big centre Matt Harding was proving a danger as well, and when he received the ball ten metres out he held off the attentions of four defenders to wrestle through and touch down, Loveridge adding the conversion for 18-10. The game was teetering on a knife-edge now and Miners nudged ten points clear by the break when O’Brien landed a penalty after a Milford high tackle.
The Miners’ captain had taken that kick with Youds off the field receiving treatment but the Miners fullback was back in the action for the start of the second half and underlined his importance to the side with a classy six-pointer to nudge Miners once again into a seemingly-commanding lead. After pressing at the right the ball was switched along the line and Youds spotted the gap twenty metres out, stepping through and then stretching out of Jones-Bishop’s tackle to dot the ball down and add the conversion himself. Miners sought a further score to put the game to bed but despite the efforts of Tony Doyle and O’Brien the visiting defence held and then cast the game back into the balance with a try of their own. Harding was held short of the line but from the play-the-ball Coates dived through to touch down, Loveridge goaling, and the roar from the visiting fans evidenced that they believed their favourites were back in contention. When Loveridge landed a penalty for flopping before the hour mark the gap was just six points and the current was flowing in Milford’s favour. They pounded the Miners line, penalties and astute kicks winning them repeat set after repeat set, and although Miners couldn’t get out of their own half they repelled all boarders with some incredibly tenacious defence as the Milford pack leaders John Elkington and the gargantuan Jamie Field were battering rams and Coates, Barker and Harding sought to capitalise on their efforts. The closest the visitors came was when Fields stormed over the line but a big hit forced him to lose the ball. Miners showed their character in defence and then on their first visit into Milford territory for some appreciable time they sealed the game as the ball was moved left and MacDonald finished off out wide. With the last play of the game the scoreline took on an unfair look from Milford’s perspective as O’Brien was far too elusive for a tired defence to score a trademark try, Youds goaling to leave Miners looking forward to a Battle of the Borough final.
Miners – Jonny Youds, Andrew Hodson, Sean MacDonald, Adam Thomason, Andrew Groves, Jimmy Muir, Scott O’Brien, Gary Gittins, Tom Farrimond, Darryl Kay, Liam Coleman, Martin Gray, Dave Rowlands Subs – Tony Doyle, Connor Partington, Todd Appleby, Kevin Howells
Tries – Thomason (2), Groves (5, 23), Youds (42), MacDonald (78), O’Brien (80)
Goals – Youds 4, O’Brien
MoM – Jonny Youds
Milford – Aaron Jones-Bishop, Ben Holmes, Matt Harding, Sam Hood, Martin Loveridge, Ryan Oxtoby, Josh Parle, Jamie Field, James Coates, John Elkington, Shane Tasker-Howard, James Barry, James Barker Subs – Nathan Walmsley, Antony Ward, Eddie Wilson, Matt Grosvenor
Tries – Loveridge (30), Harding (35), Coates (51)
Goals – Loveridge 3
MoM – James Coates
Referee – Ian Scott
Photos thanks to Alan Ball
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