The Colchester Gladiators extended their perfect start to the 2018 campaign by narrowly edging out the visiting Cambridgeshire Cats, scoring 15 unanswered points in the second half to turn over a two score deficit at half time.
After narrow defeats at the hands of the Cats last year, the Gladiators were keen to make amends this year as they welcomed the Cambridgeshire team to Colchester. The hosts started sluggishly as the Cats’ offence took control on the ground, with the run game slicing through the Gladiators defence for a series of long gains before capping the opening drive with a 10 yard canter into the end zone to take the lead. The extra point failed however, leaving the Cats with a six point lead early in the first quarter.
In reply, the Gladiators offence failed to make any impact, and an incompletion on third down saw the punt unit return the ball to the Cats and their potent rushing offence. However, the Gladiators defensive line had learned lessons from the first series and opened the drive strong as defensive tackle Dan Jones forced his way through to sack the Cambridgeshire QB for a 10 yard loss. Another Joes tackle on third down saw the Cambridgeshire punt unit come onto the field.
As the Gladiators failed to make an impact on the ground, they took to the air and on third down QB Rob Wickham found brother Jake Wickham open for 20 yard gain, but the hosts could progress no further and both sides traded punts as defence continued to prevail. Matt Richardson and Josh Milgate combined for another sack as the porous Cats offensive line proved outmatched by their opposite numbers. However, the Cats continued to progress the ball through a combination of completed passes and penalties against the home defence meant that Cambridgeshire found themselves in Gladiators territory before the Cats’ running back broke free of the Gladiators’ tacklers and scampered 26 yards into the end zone for the second score, to extend the lead to 12. Seeking to make up for the missed kick earlier, the visitors opted to go for 2 points, but the play was telegraphed perfectly by linebacker Jon Perry who shot through the flailing blocks to cut down the runner short of the goalline.
Again, the Gladiators failed to respond, as their offensive woes continued, giving the Cats another opportunity before the half. Fortunately the Colchester defensive line were on form, and a second sack from Jones, as well as the first of a pair of sacks from defensive end Curtis Bourke saw the Cambridgeshire QB visibly shaken.
The home team used the break to regroup and refocus as they took the ball to begin the second half. Jake Wickham followed up an impressive 30 yard kick return with a 37 yard reception to move the Gladiators deep into Cats territory. The run game continued to struggle so instead they looked to the air, completing a 21 yard pass to wide receiver Sam Gennings to take the ball inside the Cats 5 yard line, before Gennings again caught a pass from Rob Wickham to convert and half the lead. Nathan Brown made no mistake with the kick and the scoreboard read 12-7. The Cats were clearly shaken by the dynamic opening to the second half, and failed to get any traction, as Curtis Bourke continued to make his presence felt with four tackles in the drive to force a turnover. The Gladiators failed to capitalise a series of incomplete passes meant that Cambridgeshire took possession. The host’s defence were now on fine form as they shut down the Cats who then saw the ensuing punt shanked out of bounds, offering the Gladiators excellent field position, with first and goal to open the drive. Rookie receiver Ben Roper hauled in a pass to move the Gladiators to within 1 yard, before Tom Blum punched in the touchdown to take the lead. With such a slender margin, head coach Luke Box opted to go for two instead of kicking, and QB Rob Wickham rushed in untouched to extend the lead to three points.
As the Cats sought to reply Bourke again was the disruptive force, recording his second sack and then forcing a fumble, recovered by Mark Gilbranch to give the Gladiators possession. As the clock ticked down the Gladiators offence hesitated and as both sides rained down incomplete passes, possession flip flopped between the teams as neither gained an advantage. With what turned out to be the final play of the game, the Cambridgeshire offense saw an errant pass fly into the hands of Gladiators’ defensive back Lewis Mews, claiming the interception that sealed the win for the Colchester team
Head Coach Luke Box was delighted with the result, saying “the performance was not on a par wth what we aspire to, but the fact that the senior players took on the challenge and turned the scoreline upside down in the second half is testament to the players and coaches who work so hard. Fifteen unanswered points is obviously excellent, but the defensive shutout in the second half and the constant harassment of the opposing quarterback is one of the most pleasing sights for a coach. We’ve got plenty to work on over the coming weeks, and what’s becoming very clear is that, like last year, there’ll be no easy games in this division, so we’ll have to continue to work hard to ensure we’re up to the challenge”.
The Gladiators now have a week off as they prepare to host the London Hornets on 6th May at 2.30pm at the Corporal Budd VC Gymnasium, Berechurch Road, CO2 9RQ.