Final score: Darlington Mowden Park 28 Macclesfield 24
SPORTING drama doesn’t come any better than this. It was a big day when Mowden beat Rosslyn Park 14 years ago to reach the last 16 of the national cup, but they can never have envisaged witnessing anything like this.
A pulsating match in front of 3,750 fans developed into a gripping climax, heightened by the confusion immediately before and after the final whistle.
The referee appeared not to have awarded Macclesfield a try, but changed his mind after consulting a touch judge.
Many in the crowd probably thought it didn’t matter anyway because Mowden had still won, but so incredibly tight were the margins in this promotion race that it spelt the difference between finishing first or third for the visitors and left Mowden facing a play-off.
It would be wrong to single out anyone in a huge team effort, but if there was a match-winner it was fly half Tom Hodgson, who scored one of the four tries and converted them all.
Only one of the kicks was easy – one was from the left touchline – and they made the difference as the try count was 4-4.
Hodgson, a regular bench man who was brought into the starting line-up the previous week, is the brother of Dan, the third-string Yorkshire wicketkeeper who has just been loaned to Derbyshire.
Tom’s first act was to tackle Macclesfield’s 7ft lock Dean Williams, setting the standard for heroic defence from the whole team.
Tongan lock Talite Vaioleti may be something of an itinerant but he put his body on the line for his Mowden mates, despite a shoulder problem which will require an operation. He took a knock and could be doubtful for the play-off, but everyone else is expected to be available.
Mowden were under the cosh for the seven minutes it took the big Macclesfield forwards to batter their way to the line for the opening try.
It was a similar story in the last ten minutes as the visitors piled on the pressure in search of the try without which, for them, everything would have been in vain.
When they finally scrambled over in the left corner the referee seemed to indicate that the ball had been held up, but the touch judge clearly advised him otherwise.
Inbetween the two torrid spells at the start and finish the Mowden forwards fronted up magnificently against their bigger opponents and the team were rewarded for playing all the rugby.
DISAPPOINTMENT: Mowden Park’s players trudge off after a late try ended their title hopes
Things looked ominous when they lost a scrum against thehead immediately after going 7-0 down, but a quickly-taken penalty got them on the front foot and hooker Ross White almost got to the line before an ambitious pass was knocked on in the left corner.
The tension was palpable as a flare-up ensued and after the Macclesfield hooker was sin-binned, Mowden kicked the penalty to touch and scored from a catch-and-drive through lock Chris Campbell.
The rest of the first half belonged to Mowden and they went ahead after 24 minutes when Hodgson received the ball from a scrum on the 22, dummied inside his opposite number and found the cover surprisingly lacking as he sped to the line.
A sublime break by skipper Cameron Mitchell ended with a forward pass before the third try arrived on the stroke of half-time.
A good attack up the left almost put winger Tom Kill in and the forwards kept the pressure on for flanker Callum Mackenzie to scramble over.
Mowden threatened to stretch their 21-7 lead early in the second half, when full back Henry Robinson counter-attacked strongly up the left touchline. When he chipped ahead he was taken out but when the penalty was kicked to the corner it brought no reward.
Ross Doneghan and Ollie Hodgson were sent on to beef up the pack, but it was always likely that the Macclesfield forwards would come again and they did so with two catch-and-drive tries.
Inbetween, however, Mowden scored their crucial fourth. They surged into the 22 when Vaioleti broke powerfully up the blind side of a ruck and it looked a harsh call when a Mackenzie try was ruled out for a forward pass.
But even though they were going backwards at the next scrum, Mowden somehow got the ball out on the narrow side and scrum half Zylon Magoffin sent Kill over in the corner.
Hodgson’s perfectly-struck conversion made it 28-12, but unlike the first half all the penalties started to go in Macclesfield’s favour as they bossed the last 20 minutes.
Their third try followed two penalties to touch but the next catch-and-drive attempt was repelled then Mowden, scrapping for dear life, won two crucial turnovers near the line.
As the game entered injury time Robinson was sinbinned for illegally interfering with a driving maul and at that point Magoffin was replaced and left to a standing ovation.
He probably felt he had played his last game for Mowden before joining Rotherham, but Macclesfield’s pressure finally had its reward and Magoffin can now say his farewell in the play-off.