After the high of recording their first Premier Division win last week over the East Kent Mavericks, the Colchester Gladiators’ hopes were high that they could build on the momentum generated from their historic win when they opened their home programme against the Cats from Cambridgeshire. Unfortunately they were brought firmly back down to earth with a bump as they struggled to generate much offence, and the Cats took advantage of some sloppy tackling to run out comfortable winners at Colchester Rugby Club on Sunday.
The Cats received the ball to start the game and set a marker on the game’s first play with a 29 yard run for a first down. They completed the drive seven plays later when their running back scored from a yard out. The extra point was good and the Cats led 7-0.
The Gladiators threatened to get straight back into the game with Chris Jackson running for nine, five and ten yards on their first three plays and when Curtis Bourke found last week’s hero Andy Clarke for a 23 yard gain, the Gladiators had moved to the Cats 35. But after a fumble for a loss, Bourke threw his first interception of the day to turn the ball over to the visitors.
However, the Gladiators did get back into it just four plays later when, after good defence and a Cats fumble, they elected to punt on fourth down. The kick was shanked straight to Raul Barclay who ended up with the simple task of running a few yards untouched into the Cats end zone for a touchdown. Unfortunately Nathan Brown’s extra point attempt was wide but the Cats lead was just a single point at 7-6.
That was as close as the hosts came though and from the ensuing kick off, the lead was back to seven points when the Cats returned the ball spectacularly all the way for a 94 yard score. The point after was again good, making the score 13-6.
This was increased to 19-6 as the quarter ended after the Gladiators were forced to punt, and a good return took them to the Gladiators’ 27, setting up a 16 yard pass completion for the third Cambridge touchdown of the opening period. The Pat was no good but after just 15 minutes of play, Colchester trailed 19-6.
The Gladiators offence continued to make life hard for itself with fumbles and fumbled pitches but the defence was getting to grips with the Cats and Raul Barclay picked off their American QB and a goal line stand prevented any further scores until another self inflicted mistake opened up an opportunity for the Cats to extend their lead just before half time.
The Gladiators were due to punt from their own 36 but a fumbled snap gifted possession to Cambridge just 22 yards out and on the half’s final play, when faced with a fourth and goal from the one, their QB found a receiver in the end zone, who caught the ball for the score. The extra point was tacked on to leave the Gladiators trailing 26-6 at the interval.
The start of the third quarter featured some sloppy lay from both sides and included four turnovers on four consecutive plays. The Gladiators had back up QB Brandon Sleiker in under centre to try to create a spark but had to punt away their first possession. Three plays later they had the ball back when Ian Digby recovered a fumble, but Slieker and his Cats counterpart threw consecutive interceptions, with Sam Gennings claiming the ball back for the Gladiators. However, another home fumble gifted the Cats excellent field position with a first down on the Gladiators 17 but great defence brought up a fourth down and the Cats lined up for a field goal attempt.
The Cats head coach called for a fake but the pass attempt fell incomplete to give the Gladiators a temporary reprieve.
Starting their next drive on their own five, the Gladiators put together a 13 play drive, helped by a roughing the passer call to negate a Slieker interception, which took them deep into the Cats half, but they again shot themselves in the foot with a fumbled pitch that resulted in an 11 yard loss. They couldn’t make up the yardage and the quarter ended scoreless with the Cats in possession, still up by 20.
The game was sealed on the first play of the fourth quarter when more poor tackling allowed a pass completion to go all the way to the end zone for a 64 yard touchdown. The PAT was good and with the score now 33-6, the Gladiators were playing for pride.
The modern day Gladiators fight to the end and engineered their best drive of the day, travelling 85 yards in 11 plays. The drive started with a 36 yard completion from Slieker to Vic Williams and good running from Jackson, and another completion, this time to Ash Latter, took the ball to the Cambridge two. On fourth down, Jackson barged his way over the line for six points and a 33-12 score. The two point pass attempt was no good but the score appeared a little more respectable.
The Cats couldn’t move the ball and threw incomplete on fourth down to give Colchester the ball back, but another fumbled pitch was fortuitously recovered by Tom Burridge, but the 19 yard loss brought up third and 28. After an incomplete pass, a defensive penalty gifted the Gladiators a first down but with time running out, Slieker’s long pass attempts fell incomplete and time expired with the Gladiators counting the cost of all their mistakes.
Head Coach Matt Roberts was disappointed with the overall performance but was keen to pick out the positives to take forward and said: “Today was always going to be a tough one for us. With us missing starting linemen Paul Brunsden and Nigel Mann, and also rookie receiver Andi Xheka on offence, defensive captain Garry Shuttleworth and star middle linebacker Brendan Bignell we knew it would be and challenge. In reality offensively despite showing flashes of promise, silly mistakes and sloppy execution routinely killed drives and that meant with defence and special teams struggling to handle the sheer athleticism of a number of their players, we couldn’t put enough pressure on them early to really make a game of it. As always there are plenty of positives to take from the game, and continued improvement but ultimately we were miles off where we could have been and myself and the coaches need to do a better job of understanding why that is and correct it before our next, toughest run of games. Four turnovers and putting the ball on the floor hurt us today but credit to the Cats, they have some quality players and made us pay.
“On the positive side however, Brandon Slieker played well when he came on in the second half and Chris Jackson ran hard all day.
“After a slow start, the defence played well and two more interceptions from our secondary shows what a good unit we have there. Missed tackles again cost us though and with some tough games coming up next month, we need to do a better job there.
“Special teams was a big disappointment for me today, giving up that kick off return touchdown was very disappointing as we work hard in this area every year. We gave up good field position all day and that just won’t cut it in this league. We have a lot to work on before our next game but we will look at the film as a team and make sure we prepare as well as we can.”
The Gladiators’ next game is on Sunday 8th June against the current premier champions, the London Warriors, at Colchester Rugby Club, 2.30pm kick off. The Warriors team features TV personality Vernon Kay so a bumper crowd is expected.
Further information about the Club and contact details for all sections can be found at www.colchestergladiators.com.