This Kent Cup Plate semi-final should have been played at Maidstone in March but fixture congestion determined it had to be put back and playing an evening game, under lights at Canterbury, made sense to both clubs.
The outcome was a keenly contested game, ultimately won in the last ten minutes by Maidstone, 32-22.
But the final moments had a nasty sting in the tail as skipper, Ben Williams, suffered an injury which could curtail any further involvement in the game, this season.
The rules of this competition determine that level five sides and above can only field their second team, with certain well defined caveats. But Canterbury Pilgrims have enjoyed a successful season, so any thoughts of this being a canter, to match Saturday’s, against Gosport & Fareham, should not have been in any of the players’ minds. And so it proved, as a well contested match unfolded, with advantage flowing to one team and then the other.
There were some changes to the Maidstone starting fifteen, determined by injury and non-availabilities. Both of the Knight brothers picked up knocks on Saturday, so had to sit this one out, allowing another start for Tom Chandler in the second row, partnered by Charlie Williams. With Shaun Woolford unavailable, Alex Clarke came in on the right wing but, otherwise, the back line was unchanged.
From the off, it was clear that Maidstone wanted to play a fast and open game and Lucian Morosan duly obliged with a quick tap penalty, trying to catch Canterbury on the back foot early on. It was also clear at the first scrum that Maidstone’s pack was going to prove difficult for Canterbury to contain, as they pushed the hosts off their own ball.
The Canterbury defence was strong throughout this early period and Maidstone’s attacking efforts were thwarted. It took a classic ‘catch and drive’ move, following a penalty kick to touch, to break the deadlock, with Josh Pankhurst getting the touchdown. A Caborn conversion, from the touchline, took the lead to seven points on the quarter hour.
A Caborn penalty stretched the lead to ten points, five minutes later, and Maidstone appeared to be gaining the upper hand. But a Canterbury penalty, in reply, by fly half, Hilton, pegged the lead back and reminded the visitors that a certain looseness that had crept into their play would be punished.
A yellow card for Nathan Simpson, at the restart, put Maidstone into defensive mode, but two more tries in the last ten minutes of the half, on his return, put Maidstone back in charge by half time. The first came when Maidstone stole a Canterbury line out deep in their own half. The ball was switched to the three quarters and a well-judged kick by Rory Beech was gathered by Matt Moore at full pace and he outstripped the defence to score in the corner.
Another try, in added time, stretched the lead to 20-3. This time, Tom Chandler finished off the move, again instigated by Beech, from close range.
With Maidstone dominant and a clear margin on the scoreboard, it was clear to all that the first score after the break would determine the course of the game. Canterbury also made it clear, from the off, that they would pile everything into making sure they controlled the opening exchanges and this led to their first try of the game.
With a fast start taking play into the Maidstone 22, a neat chip through the Maidstone defence by Hilton allowed full back Kingsman to touch down near the left corner flag. With Hilton slotting the conversion, the score-line took on a more balanced view as Canterbury reduced the deficit to ten points.
This was reduced to five points, ten minutes later, when a No. 8 break took play from half way to the Maidstone line. The penalty incurred, stopping the attack, was taken quickly and second row, Hines, got the touchdown. With Hilton adding the conversion, Maidstone’s lead was reduced to three points.
Canterbury continued to press but Maidstone’s defence held, and, slowly but surely, the visitors began to regain the initiative. A chip over the Canterbury line by Morosan, deep into the 22, was followed up by Moore, forcing the defence to concede the line out, from which another catch and drive move saw Pankhurst score.
And with time running down, Maidstone scored again. This time it was a classic interception by Matt Moore on half way that allowed him to run round under the posts, allowing Caborn an easy conversion, taking the score to 17-32.
But a poor kick by Maidstone allowed Canterbury, once more, back into the game with hooker, Townley, finishing off a move in the right corner, bringing the score back to 22-32.
Maidstone looked to control the game through a series of drives, which began to run down the clock, but with the forty minute mark approaching, Ben Williams was tackled by a number of Canterbury forwards and sustained a knock to the head. The game was quickly stopped as it was clear the injury required medical attention.
Following consultation with both teams and their coaching staffs’, the referee wisely determined to blow the final whistle, with Maidstone the victors by 32-22, as Ben Williams continued to receive attention on the pitch. The victory, that should have been a cause for celebration, was cast in a more sombre note by the skipper’s injury that could prevent him playing again this season.
Maidstone Ben Williams; Josh Pankhurst; Nathan Simpson: Tom Chandler; Charlie Williams: Ben Brill; Lewis Stimpson; Matt Iles: Lucian Morosan; Rory Beech: Matt Moore; Ross Cooke; Filip Perica; Alex Clarke: Euan Caborn
Replacements: Jack Johnson; Josh Smith; Martin Maytum (All used); Harry Cole
Pictures supplied by Bob Hayton