On Tuesday evening, under the floodlights at Sleaford's East Road ground, North Hykeham took on current Junior Lincolnshire Cup holders Cleethorpes in the perennially rescheduled first round of this season's competition. First point to note was the excellent availability of players for a midweek game leaving the captain some tough calls, not just in the starting XV but in the selection of the 22 man squad. Moreover, the team greatly appreciated those whom made the effort to travel away on a dark evening in January to provide support.
This fixture was a repeat of the first round game of the NLD cup this year, and Hykeham knew exactly what to expect after the first clash in the early Autumn. The game, as usual, kicked off at a rapid pace, both sides eager to make an impression early and set the tone for the rest of the game. The swirling winds made for an exceptionally difficult night for the side in terms of the kicking game; not least with the unpredictability of the restart kick offs. The conditions led to multiple penalties and intermissions in play with both teams finding difficulties with line-out throw ins and gathering from under the high ball. As possession oscillated hastily, Hykeham made the first score from a quick thinking penalty move from Bunn, who made multiple yards creating space to put through Rush, following in a dangerous line and committing multiple defenders. With Cleethorpes' defensive line scrambling, ball was recycled wide quick for Munton to use his power and pace to score. However the lead was short lived as some sloppy defence and poor concentration in possession allowed Cleethorpes to reply almost instantly.
In a very even first half, both teams were trading punches, experiencing periods on top without either team being able to gain dominance on the scoreboard. Hykeham looked at their most dangerous when the back three had ball in hand running in the space created by the forwards tying up Cleethorpes' big men. In a classic example of this, Foster put on the afterburners to score the second try. The half ended 15-12 in Cleethorpes favour.
At the interval, Hykeham used their strength and depth on the bench to bring on fresh legs in replacements; and continued to blend the replacements for the remainder of the game. In the second half Hykeham put together some great moves, often seeming to have done the dirty work to create the chances but evidently not quite able to convert the moves. Quinlan bullied his way through to score a try towards the end, and there were indeed chances late to pull off the upset, however it was ultimately too little too late with the final whistle seeing Cleethorpes through safely 25-17.
On reflection, although there were some great phases of play and buckets of commitment, it was apparent that the team lacked some of the sharpness of their recent games, particularly in relation to first up tackles and decision making. This is undoubtedly a corollary of the lack of training and game-time due to the disruptive weather in recent weeks. Therefore this cup fixture, if nothing else, was a great practice run to focus minds and get everyone up to speed as the side turn their attention back to league business starting this weekend at home to Ollerton. Promotion is statistically possible but would require an unprecedented run of form and it would be ridiculous to even contemplate the possibility (just yet). However, the back to back league fixtures in the next 10 days will determine whether the team can sustain a promotion challenge to the end of the season, or whether they will peter out back to low-table mediocrity.