Fylde 22 Coventry 20

Christopher Johnson fends off a tackle
Christopher Johnson fends off a tackle
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ON a day when the Woodlands clubhouse was decked out with skeletons and other paranormal paraphernalia for a Halloween party, Fylde had a scare before a Chris Birchall try secured a last-gasp victory.

The party was a four nights early but Fylde’s salvation could not have been left any later – Birchall scored in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

Picking the bare bones out this pre-Holloween contest, it was not one to inspire and one wonders what were the private thoughts of the two former England captains watching, Bill Beaumont and Mike Harrison, and another former England international in Peter Rossborough, now the Coventry president.

There was little to choose between the sides, as the pre-match league standings indicated and Fylde were nowhere near their best.

They can rarely have given away so much turnover ball on a day littered by handling errors from both sides. And while the contest was always interesting because of its closeness, this was no glowing advert for the game. The pivotal contribution was by wing Ollie Viney.

Man of the match, he claimed two first-half tries and made a crucial interception in a match always on a knifeedge. It was a match of few chances, especially in a second half in which the quality deteriorated after a lively, keenly-contested first 40 minutes. Fylde were given little chance to exploit the pace of their outside backs, with the exception of Viney, who made the most of the opportunites that came his way.

On the other flank, Oli Brennand found his potent attacking potential largely shackled until a late run, which did set up Fylde’s last wave of attack and Birchall’s most timely contribution.

Fylde pinned Coventry back in the opening skirmishes, Birchall starting as he would finish by flirting close with the visitors’ try-line.

The home side then came under severe pressure but opened the scoring on 11 minutes. Chris Johnson jinking past a couple of men in midfield before the ball broke to Scott Barrow. The Fylde fly-half kicked ahead and the ball bounced kindly and the onrushing Viney touched down. Johnson added the extras as Fylde drew first blood.

Roger Banks was penalised for failing to roll away at the ruck and Coventry fly-half Cliff Hodgson duly landed the kick.

Coventry prop Nico Steenkamp was on the verge of plunging over only for referee Terry Hall to spot a knock-on – huge relief for the home side whose lead was under threat.

But on 26 minutes, Fylde were made to pay heavily for surrendering the ball in midfield. They had no answer as winger Heath Stevens hared away and found Ben Toft in support. The full-back flirted with the touchline but finished with aplomb and alacrity. Hodgson’s conversion gave the visitors a 10-7 lead.

Three minutes later, Fylde regained the lead, showing their running backs at their best.

First, Brennand was dumped in the tackle on the left wing but managed to keep the ball alive. There was excellent foraging by Steve McGinnis before the ball was unleased to the right and Viney steamed in for his, and Fylde’s, second try, which Johnson goaled. Fylde nearly claimed a third after break by Viney. De La Harpe and Evan Stewart continued the move but Birchall was crowded out. Johnson extended the lead to 17-10 with a fine penalty on 36 minutes. .

That was emphasised in the run-up to half-time when Coventry levelled the scores. Fylde’s pack conceded a penalty, and from the resulting line-out Coventry showed aggression and strength to push their rivals backwards at a rate of knots.

There was an inevitability about the outcome as Danny Wright claimed the try, Hodgson’s kick achieved half-time parity, a reflection of how the play had gone.

It was Coventry who carried on the momentum at the start of the second half, Tom Harris sniping close to the Fylde line before being scragged by Chris Briers. The line of attack switched to the opposite flank ut a dreadful pass into touch wasted a clear-cut opening for the Midlanders.

Coventry continued to make the running, but play got scrappy and Fylde started to impose themselves in a contest too close to call.

The next score was potentially vital after a scoreless third quarter.

It came Coventry’s way on 65 minutes, when Vernon was penalised for failing to release and Hodgson slotted over the kick to inch his side in front. Excellent covering by Viney saved the day for Fylde as Coventry encroached deep into the home half.

As the match entered its closing stages, Coventry’s Luke Myring was yellow-carded, but Fylde wasted the position with replacement hooker Jonny Roddam’s crooked lineout throw following the penalty.

In the dying phases, Birchall bulldozed through on the short side, but the ruling was that he had been held up. In a frantic finale, it was all Fylde as they tried to retrieve the situation. Coventry gave away a succession of penalties as Barrow and Stewart both went close.

Fylde won a penalty in front of the posts. Mark Nelson and his coaching staff signalled to take the three points and a draw. Paul Arnold had other ideas and ran it. It seemed a bizarre decision at the time, but it paid dividends. Fylde shifted it out wide, where there was a crowd scene at the bottom of which was Birchall, who had been Fylde’s best forward.

There was consultation between the officials and the decision went in Fylde’s favour to turn the spectre of defeat into victory on a day when the rugby could hardly be described as bewitching.

Fylde: C Briers; Viney, S Briers, Johnson (Spragg, 61) Brennand; Barrow, De La Harpe (Wallwork, 76); Birchall, Loney (Roddam, 61) Lavelle (Altham, 73) Arnold, Banks, Vernon (Maher, 74) McGinnis, Stewart.