The Colchester Gladiators welcomed their county rivals the Essex Spartans, to Mill Road rugby club on Sunday, and sent them packing with a hefty defeat.
The Gladiators improved their record to 8-0, moving within one win of winning the division title, and still on course for at least one home playoff game, their first since 2009.
After defeating the Spartans 51-6 in Billericay back in July, the Gladiators were confident of achieving the double over their struggling rivals, but they were given an early shock. After electing to receive the opening kickoff, the Gladiators were surprised when the Spartans tried an onside kick which they recovered to gain the first possession of the game.
They proceeded to make it count when they drove downfield in seven plays, culminating in a 28 yard touchdown pass from QB Brandon Slieker to receiver James Thompson and an early 6-0 lead.
On the subsequent kickoff, they tried repeating the feat but this time Joe Stickings alertly secured the ball to give his offence the ball on the Essex 39.
The Gladiatorsâ€™ offence took little time in evening the score with Casey Campbell completing the four play drive with a short run. Nathan Brown slotted the extra point to give the Gladiators the lead at 7-6.
The Gladiators defence was in a fired up mood after the early Spartans score and forced and recovered a fourth down fumble. The offence again made no mistake, driving the 28 yards in two plays through QB Curtis Bourke runs. The agile QB faked an exchange with Campbell before keeping the ball and scampering the final 16 yards for his first of three rushing scores on the day. Brown nailed the point after for a 14-6 score.
Linebacker Mark Gilbranch intercepted the Spartans QB on their next possession and Campbell extended the lead to 21-6 early in the second quarter with a 47 yard run and another Brown PAT.
The Spartansâ€™ offence showed signs of life after an exchange of turnovers with a 12 play drive but they came up short on the Gladiatorsâ€™ 16 when Raul Barclay batted down a fourth down pass, but the Gladiators could not take advantage when Bourke through an interception and the half ended with the Gladiators comfortably ahead at 21-6.
The second half began with the Gladiators attempting an onside kick but the Spartans were prepared and recovered the ball. Their good field position was wasted however when Luke Box forced another fumble and Gary Shuttleworth pounced on the ball for the turnover.
It was Chris Jacksonâ€™s turn to get on the score sheet and showed great speed, dancing down the sideline for a 55 yard score. The nippy runner scored a second moments later after safety Alex Robinson knocked down a fourth down pass attempt, hauling in a 17 yard pass from QB Bourke to take the score to 35-6.
Two Spartan fumbles led to two further Gladiator scores. Bourke found Neil Owen for a 24 yard pick up before Bourke himself went over from five yards out. On the following kick off, the Spartans fumbled again and the result was the same, Bourke this time scoring from eight yards and the third quarter ended with the Gladiators leading by 48-6.
Ben Smith claimed his first interception of the year on the Spartans next drive and the turnover was again converted into points when Campbell showed a clean pair of heels, crossing the goal line from 36 yards out. Brownâ€™s PAT took the total to 55-6.
The Gladiatorsâ€™ secondary was sitting back and waiting for opportunities and they didnâ€™t have to wait long, Raul Barclay with another pick to add to the Spartansâ€™ misery. But with fringe players being rotated in and the game won, the Gladiators couldnâ€™t add to their total and the game finished when Campbell turned safety on a fourth down pass attempt and batted the ball down to prevent a first down.
Head Coach Matt Roberts was pleased with the teamâ€™s performance and said: â€œToday was a great game to be a part of, and credit to the Essex Spartans who, even with numerous players unavailable, gave us a spirited and tough challenge. We were also missing several key starters including starting guard Dave Crane who was sidelined with a knee injury, leaving us light in key positions. However credit to the players on the day, we really started well enough but then lost composure from trying to force the issue which meant at half time we were all pretty unhappy with how we were playing. I set the target of a second half defensive shut out and four further TDs and was delighted to not only get the shutout, but to score another five.
â€œOffensively it was a great team effort, whilst clearly Campbell’s staggering 196 yards and three scoresÂ off only 14 carries was theÂ rushing leader on the day, Jackson wasn’t far off with a massive 115 yards off only five carries plus a receiving touchdown scored after hurdling a defensive player! Not only that but whilst our pass game had some trouble in spells, it was great for Bourke to hit Owen for two vital receptions, and Latter with a brace of catches, which just shows how able this unit is to move the ball around the park and keep defences on the back foot.
â€œDefensively I was really pleased how we developed through the game. With them scoring with relative ease on their first drive, it could have been easy to let them in the game, but despite them putting together some long drives, when it mattered we made the stops, generated another three interceptions and recovering three fumbles, which is massively pleasing. I was really pleased to see James Birch leading from the front with nine tackles, but also getting all players effective rotation which can only help in the run for the post season.â€
The Gladiators donâ€™t have to wait long for their next game as the Milton Keynes Pathfinders come to Colchester Rugby Club on Saturday 17th August, kick off 2.30pm. The Pathfinders gave the Gladiators their toughest test of the season holding them to a hard fought 19-8 win back in May but the Gladiators are did not have star rusher Campbell for that game and will be confident of clinching the division title.