The weather was as changeable as the middle of the league table on a Bristol derby day that saw bright sunshine, hail and rain berate the players from start to finish. But it did not deter one of the largest crowds of the season at Station Road seeing a tense and brutal contest in which Clifton ran out 17-0 winners against Old Reds and secured 6th place in National League 2.
There was plenty of emotion in the build up to the game, with veteran winger Will Pomphery calling time on his 10 year career after his 180th appearances for the 1st XV and Mitch Spencer making his 100th appearance in the Lavender & Black.
Both teams started cautiously, trying to establish dominance in the collisions as well as the set piece. Early on, Reds seemed to be in the ascendency as their scrum, anchored by former Bristol man Jake Caufiled, causing Clifton some issues which saw Niall Gibbons frequently tidy up at the back of the scrum. Again and again Reds came hard and with numbers close to the breakdown, trying to dent Clifton's defensive chain.
Neither team however could retain possession for much more than 5 phases, with Clifton looking to get to an edge, when they did get some success through their forwards, the ball was turned over. Numerous line breaks by both teams resulted in handing over possession to the other as it seemed that, even when Reds went down to 14 men, their scrum and Clifton's errors relieved the pressure.
Reds then had some success of their own, a series of penalties after good runs by Craig Owen and Henry Bird, saw Reds set up a 13 man line out, 5 meters from the line. Once again, Clifton's defence held firm and the ball was tuned over and both teams went into the sheds locked at 0-0.
Messages at half time by the coaching team saw Clifton come back out at the break determined to break the deadlock. Immediately they seemed to gain some parity in the scrum and with a better platform, were starting to cause Reds some issues. Good carries by the forwards, notably Shek Sheriff and Cam Terry saw Clifton increase the tempo with Chris Levesey beginning to find some space, Reds began to take some dents. But conditions continued to play their part and again, unforced errors meant that with 50 minutes gone, the game still felt like anybodies.
However, good pressure in the Reds 22 saw Clifton work a great pick and drive play that saw Niall Gibbons crash over to break the deadlock, Cozens converting. Reds immediately came straight back at them, camping right on Clifton's line with multiple phases and Reds impressive pack looked to punch a hole in the Clifton defence.
It is amazing how a game can turn on a six pence, as it looked like Reds were about to score out wide after good work from their forwards when a ball came loose and Pomphery picked up and surged ahead to the Reds half. Just outside the 22, Pomphery kicked ahead into the corner where the impressive Tom Stanton picked up to touch down to push Clifton to 12-0 ahead and Cozins added the extras.
Clifton now seemed to be resurgent and began to dominate the exchanges, with Reds still fighting hard until another yellow card saw Reds again reduced to 14 men and Cozins added a penalty to take it beyond two scores to seal a final day victory and secure 6th place in the league.
"We had to dig deep today, we said if we keep the ball and keep knocking on the door, we would get success, we just had to be patient and win the arm wrestle. Reds came at us with a lot left in the tank and we had to adapt our D so we weren't committing too many numbers in the early phases, but once we fixed that issue, held onto the ball and establish parity in the scrum we increased the tempo and went up a few gears and I'm pleased with how we finished."
Matt Salter, Head Coach
Clifton now head into the summer break with a great deal of optimism. With the majority of the squad signed to deals for next season and with some exciting new arrivals shortly to be announced, the management team and players are looking to next season with an eye on improvement and continuity.
"The priority for us is keeping this group together, we've grown a lot in the last 6 months and we are putting a lot of off-field strategies in place to ensure we hit the ground running in June. There is the need to add quality as well as depth in some areas and those negotiations are well down the line, if not completed so we are in a good place. The boys need a rest, but we will keep them ticking over before we meet back and make sure we pick up where we left off and ensure we maintain our consistency"
Mike Barber, Assistant Coach
Clifton will be making announcements shortly on the squad for the 2019/20 season as well as confirmed pre-season fixtures for both 1st XV and Wanderers.
The club would like to thank all of those that have supported, volunteered and turned out for the various teams or helped at events or in any capacity this season. The club and the playing and management staff could not do it if it wasn't for the great community that surrounds it off-field. Till next season #OneClub