British & Irish Cup, Pool Two: Stirling County 21 Bedford Blues 24
Bedford Blues held out against a late Stirling County comeback to triumph 24-21 in an enthralling match at Bridgehaugh on Saturday, writes Kevin Robertson.
The bonus points victory sees Bedford top their British & Irish Cup Pool Two group and qualify for the quarter-finals of the competition.
County were looking to build on last week’s Premiership win in Aberdeen and were bolstered by props Ed Kalman and Jon Welsh from Glasgow Warriors, with Kalman starting.
Flying Scotland Sevens winger Rory Hughes returned from injury to also give the home side more attacking options, while Bengy Barsanti returned at number eight.
Bedford, who currently sit joint-second in the RFU Championship, came into this match having taken maximum points from their previous four British & Irish Cup Pool Two matches, and had convincingly won the earlier match between the two clubs at Goldington Road in October.
Bedford played with pace from the first whistle and, after attacks down both flanks, centre Ollie Dodge found a gap in the stretched home defence before putting supporting openside flanker Tom Armes in for the visitors’ opening try under the posts on seven minutes, converted by James Pritchard.
County responded and from a lineout inside the Blues’ half, the ball found Mark Bennett who broke through the centre but couldn’t find the final pass to supporting winger Rory Hughes.
However from the resultant Blues lineout, five yards from their try-line, Robbie Boswell stole the loose throw to the tail and scored a try unchallenged, converted by Brian Archibald to tie the scores at 7–7 after 10 minutes.
Bedford continued to press forward with their fast open running style of rugby, and regained the lead on 21 minutes when the visitors forwards drove County back over their own try line from 10 yards out and hooker Chris Locke was at the back to touch down. However the conversion was missed as the Blues led 12-7.
County defended well and weathered the Blues’ attacking play for the remainder of the first half with resolute, if at times unorthodox defence, as Bedford led 12-7 at the break.
County brought on props Jon Welsh and Colin Hutton for Ed Kalmam and Mike McDonald at the start of the second half.
But Bedford extended their lead on 48 minutes when the Blues pack gathered a lineout and drove forward before releasing the ball out to winger James Stephenson who sped over the try line to score, converted by Pritchard.
Three minutes later and the Blues secured the bonus point and qualification to the quarter-finals of the competition with their fourth try scored by Mark Atkinson, following a length of the field move finished off by the inside centre in the right corner, as the visitors led 24–7.
County brought on Reyner Kennedy for Alex Moffat at hooker and Danny Gilmour for Johnny Hope in the backs, and to the home side’s credit they came straight back at Bedford. and scored a try on 56 minutes.
A break by Bennett, following a scrum on halfway, carved open the Blues defence and the centre drew the cover before precisely offloading to winger Byron McGuigan to score, with the conversion by Archibald reducing the deficit to 24-14.
Tim Clarke replaced Steve Swindall, and Struan Robertson came on for Bengy Barsanti, while the Blues were reduced to 14 men when Darren Fearn was sin-binned for blatant offside.
County exploited the numerical advantage and McGuigan sprinted down the right side-line to score his second try, which Archibald converted to make the score 24-21 with 12 minutes remaining.
This set up a grandstand finish to excite the large crowd as County threw everything at Bedford, and only a last ditch tackle in the final play prevented County scoring in the left-corner.
The Blues held-out to narrowly win the match and maintain their 100 per cent record as they secured top spot in Pool Two, while County remain in second place.
Stirling County: Hope, McGuigan, Bennett, Archibald, Hughes, Edwards, S Kennedy, Boswell, Barsanti, Swindall, Deacons, Leishman, Kalman, Moffat (C), MacDonald. Replacements: Welsh, R Kennedy, Hutton, Robertson, Clarke, Gilmour, Turnbull. T: Boswell, McGuigan 2. C: Archibald 3.
Blues: Reeves, Locke, Cooper, Howard, Rae, Gillanders, Barrell, Armes, Baldwin, Vass, Kohler, Atkinson, Dodge, Stephenson, Pritchard (C). Replacements: Cochrane, Boulton, Fearn, Gulliver, Vandermolen, Price, Burke. T: Armes, Locke, Stephenson, Atkinson. C: Pritchard 2.
Referee: N Correll.