The Colchester Gladiators clinched the National Division South Central Conference title on Saturday with another strong performance against a tough Milton Keynes team. With a 9-0 record and the tie breaker over second place team Kent Exiles, the title is secure. The Gladiators will be hoping to complete a perfect regular season next week when they travel to winless Maidstone Pumas, ensuring they host a playoff game for the first time since 2009.
Photos to follow
The Pathfinders, coming off a convincing 44-6 win over the Essex Spartans, brought a fairly small squad to Mill Road but played with plenty of spirit, and were unlucky not to take an early lead. The Pathfinders took the ball first but their drive did not last long before Joe Stickings knocked down a pass that Luke Box was able to catch for an interception. Colchester drove downfield but after collecting a couple of first downs, the Gladiators fumbled which was picked up by the Pathfinders and taken the distance for an apparent score. An inadvertent whistle by an over zealous official ruled the play dead and it had to be replayed. The Gladiators took full advantage and Casey Campbell opened the scoring with a nine yard run. Nathan Brown converted the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
The Pathfinders were clearly upset at the blunder and one of their players completely lost his cool and was ejected early in the first quarter for committing two consecutive personal foul penalties.
The Gladiators doubled their lead towards the end of the quarter after a Dan Jones sack forced the Pathfinders to punt. An apparent touchdown was cancelled by another inadvertent whistle by the officials, negating a 55 yard run by QB Curtis Bourke. However, two more personal foul penalties took them to the fourteen and Bourke crossed the goal line again for another six pointer. Brownâ€™s PAT extended the lead to 14-0.
The Gladiatorsâ€™ defence was having a solid game and they forced another turnover at the start of the second quarter when AJ Crabbe forced a fumble which Gary Shuttleworth recovered, handing the ball back to their offence, and setting them up for the best play of the day. QB Bourke spotted Chris Jackson getting open down the left sideline and launched an inch perfect pass that the nippy receiver caught in stride before out-sprinting the cornerback for a 66 yard score. Brown was again successful with the PAT to open up a 21 point lead.
The Pathfinders offence started to find its groove as they mixed up the run and the pass, driving from their own 33 to the Gladiatorsâ€™ 15, but they could not find a way to the endzone and Sam Gennings made a spectacular grab of a Pathfinder pass for yet another turnover.
The Gladiatorsâ€™ offence then drove all the way to the MK three behind the strong running of Campbell but on fourth down, the Pathfinders defence made a play to prevent any further scoring and the Gladiators went in at halftime ahead by 21-0.
The Gladiators opened the second half with a long kick off return by Jackson and extended their lead just three plays later when Bourke threw his second touchdown pass of the day to Tommy Clarke, from 16 yards out.
The Pathfinders gained excellent field position from the kick off and showed some determination by finally getting on the scoreboard after a six play drive. Colchester answered immediately however to restore their four score lead through Campbellâ€™s 17 yard run. Brownâ€™s point after was blocked but at 34-6, the game was effectively over.
Playing for pride, the Pathfinders scored again with their best drive of the day, traveling 60 yards in ten plays, helped by two dubious pass interference calls on fourth down passes, culminating in a 14 yard halfback option pass to a Pathfinder receiver. The two point run attempt was stopped by Stickings but the Gladiators lead was cut to 34-12.
After James Birch forced another fumble, recovered by Crabbe, the Gladiators sealed the win with another Campbell TD to make the final score 40-12, and finished the day with 167 yards from 22 carries.
Head Coach Matt Roberts was pleased after the game and said: â€œIt’s a good feeling to come out of our toughest game of the season with a healthy win, and more importantly avoid picking up any new injuries which we can ill afford. Milton Keynes is a physical, punishing team and with a number of defensive standouts they really asked a lot of questions of the offence. What’s pleasing is that the players really responded, putting in a great shift led by the tough running of Casey Campbell who rushed for another 167 yards and three scores. It wasÂ a great chance even in tough conditionsÂ to ensure all our new players are getting meaningful game time, with Dean Semple recording another great catch, Dan Johnson developing well on the line and Oliver Ackland-Snow also making a big contribution to the receiving corp. ThisÂ means in the run up to post season football we’re continually developing and growing the squad and with new signingÂ Anders Bengston eligible to play from the next game we’re really showing where this team can go.
â€œDefensively I was very pleased; with the middle of the park controlled by Box and Birch our two middle â€˜backers I felt we were more than a match for their strong interior run game, led by a player scouted to a US college, so it’s especially pleasing to have held them to under 100 yards of rushing on the day. Likewise with us bottling up their run game, their US QB struggled in the pass game, failing to complete any really deep threats and only adding another 59 yards and two interceptions to their offensive efforts. Like the offence, depth on defence is also really coming along, with a great group of DBs even without starting safety Alex Robinson and corner Raul Barclay we didn’t seem to miss a beat, with rookie Sky Bultitude especially impressing.
â€œWe now have to focus on winning our final game at Maidstone on Sunday, but already behind the scenes the coaches are planning for post season football, breaking down film of our upcoming opponents, as winning the division means nothing if we fail to perform in the knock out stages. There is still a lot to work on, and this tough game really showed us where we need to focus, but I’m confident we have a group of players who can make a push to the final and take us all the way.â€
The Gladiators close out their regular season on Sunday 25th August with a trip to Maidstone. The struggling Pumas will try hard but shouldnâ€™t trouble the Gladiators who are likely to use the game as an opportunity to rest some starters and give valuable playing time to some fringe players, in advance of a playoff game on the weekend of 14th/15th September at Colchester Rugby Club.