Nottingham Outlaws retained the Heroes trophy on Saturday with a magnificent 22-16 victory over a determined Royal Artillery outfit. In an absorbing contest played in atrocious conditions the Outlaws were behind for most of the game before two tries in the final quarter saw them keep the silverware for another year.
The Outlaws went into their final match before the league campaign with a new look half back pairing as Alex Whittle made a welcome return to the side to slot into the halves with rookie Ciaran Dean whilst Sam Campbell and Chris Prime both returned to the squad as coach Strachan shuffled his line up.
The match started in pouring rain with standing water on the pitch but the Outlaws appeared unaffected by the conditions. Showing their attacking intent right from the kick off they defied the elements by moving the ball at pace to launch a series of early raids on the Gunners try line and with the match only 5 minutes old they took an early lead. The try came on the last tackle as half back Ciaran Dean put in a beautifully weighted kick into the in-goal area and full back Adam Cunliffe won the race to the ball to put the Outlaws ahead. Dean converted from bang in front to make it 6-0 to the home team.
Stung by this reversal the Artillery roared into life, their big forwards finally getting to grips with the slippery conditions and a series of good kicks and back to back sets saw the Gunners lay siege to the Outlaws line. For a while the Outlaws seemed to be holding on well defensively but again it was the kicking game that proved the key as the Gunners put in a well weighted kick into the Outlaws in goal area and as the ball bounced wickedly Gunner Rowan pounced to level the scores at 6-6.
Following the equalising score the match became something of an arm wrestle as the incessant rain made expansive rugby virtually impossible and both sides tried to utilise their forwards to make yardage. This played into the hands of the Artillery whose bigger pack began to dominate field position and the Outlaws found themselves playing more and more rugby in their own territory. Once again the Outlaws line seemed to be capable of holding out with some great swarming defence but yet again it was a kick that was to prove their undoing as a superb cross field effort saw Gunner Hamzat catch the ball in full flight to score in the corner.
The conversion sailed through the post to put the Artillery in command at 12-6 and the half time whistle went with the Gunners seemingly well on the way to taking the magnificent trophy back to HQ!
Coach Strachan used the interval to make a few changes in the forwards as Dan Wilson and Dave Challenger both came on to add some fresh legs to a pack that had stood up well against a physically larger Gunners front six.
The second stanza started well for the Outlaws with Alex Whittle brushing off the cobwebs to put in a well weighted kick into the Gunners red zone and once again it was that man Cunliffe who won the race to the ball to narrow the deficit to 12-10.
The second half then pretty much reverted into a carbon copy of the first half with the Artillery using their big pack to dominate possession and territory as the conditions underfoot worsened. Indeed with fifteen minutes played almost exclusively in the Outlaws half the Artillery looked the most likely side to score next and they did just that. Back to back sets saw the Gunners lay siege to the home try line and they finally added to their tally with a fine try to nudge the Artillery even further ahead at 16-10.
With twenty minutes to go it seemed likely that the silverware would be heading down to Aldershot but in a stunning reversal in fortunes the Outlaws hit the gas to seize the advantage!
The Outlaws revival came on the back of some great work in the forwards, led by man of the match Wil Ephraim who made a series of powerful surges down the middle of the park. At last the Outlaws began to get some field position and the once dominant Gunners pack began to fall off the tackle for the first time in the game.
Having seized the initiative a stunning five minute spell saw the Outlaws take control of a game that appeared to be slipping away from them.
The fight back started with player coach George Strachan crashing over from short range from an inside ball. Dean added the extras to level the scores at 16-16 and then minutes later the Outlaws hit the front for the first time since the opening five minutes. The try came off the back of a powerful Oliver Dale surge and following a quick play the ball Sam Campbell picked up from acting half and bamboozled the visiting markers, scooting over the line for an opportunistic effort. Dean added the extras from the touchline to put the outlaws six ahead at 22-16.
The final five minutes saw the Artillery throw the proverbial kitchen sink at the Outlaws defence and they nearly scored at the death, only for the ball to slip agonisingly out of their hands with the line beckoning.
When the referee finally brought proceedings to a close the players celebrated and the coaching staff appeared content having kept hold of the trophy for another 12 months. Indeed the match marked the end of highly satisfying pre-season campaign which has seen the Outlaws win three out of three full hit outs. However, the new campaign is now only two weeks away and all eyes will be looking north as the Outlaws make their debut in the Yorkshire Premier League!