Jersey suffered the most agonising of ends to their British & Irish Cup campaign. The 13-man Reds battled heroically to the end of their semi-final against Yorkshire Carnegie and scored six tries to the hosts' five but ended up beaten by a single, meagre, horrible, controversial point. No wonder the visiting party looked shell-shocked as they made their way across the Pennines to Manchester Airport ahead of a 5am Monday alarm call and the red-eye flight back home.
Both the visitors and the home club had picked their strongest available sides, and the Carnegie XV was packed with players with premiership experience, with a large and powerful pack, pace to burn in the backs, and the astute direction of Kevin Sinfield pulling the strings at fly-half.
Jersey weren't about to be bothered about the names on the team-sheet and tore into their opponents from the start. A shocking pass from Chris Pilgrim to his half-back partner Sinfield forced the rugby league legend to clear to touch, but the ball had gone back into the 22 so it was an attacking lineout chance for Jersey. The maul rumbled forward and then the ball was passed out. Lewis Robling's thundering run was stopped but Nick Haining gathered the ball and crossed for a try.
Carnegie almost hit back immediately but a potential scoring pass from Jonah Holmes to Taylor Prell was ruled forward and then a lung-bursting 70-metre run from skipper Ryan Burrows needed all Tom Howe's pace, and a textbook tackle, to stop. But eventually on 16 minutes Sinfield put Joe Graham through a gap and the hooker showed the skills of a Fijian sevens specialist to flip the ball inside to centre Andy Forsyth whose switch run took him under the posts.
This was the start of a three-try blitz from the Yorkshire side which also included a try for Prell from Sinfield's run (a first union try beckoned but he opted to pass), and then Holmes setting up a mis-match between Jersey's Joel Dudley, whose valiant attempt to bring down the vast frame of Rob O'Donnell was in vain.
Suddenly trailing 19-5, Jersey might have had the stuffing knocked out of them, but showed real reserves of skill and character to battled back. Robling fed Evans, who raced through a midfield gap and got close to the line but couldn't quite finish or find a colleague. But the Reds weren't to be denied - James Freeman finished a well-worked rolling maul and just a minute later Rich Lane raced down the right and could have scored but for a high tackle. There was a claim for a penalty try but the referee played advantage and Ross Adair seized the ball and crossed.
Carnegie's margin was just two, but they were able to extend it by the break. A massive hit by Sam Lockwood on O'Donnell was still reverberating around the sparsely-populated ground when Jersey were penalised at the next breakdown for not rolling away. A quick penalty and good interplay between Graham, Chris Walker and Prell created a chance for Prell who scored. Sinfield landed his third conversion from four first-half attempts.
Jersey made a stunning start to the second half - another impressive tackle by Lockwood and great follow-up work by another Leeds' old boy, Pierce Phillips, secured possession for Jersey and it was put to good use: the ball was quickly fed wide and Adair scored his second try with just 35 seconds on the clock.
Jersey had possibly their best spell of the game in the opening quarter-hour, but could not score again although Haining went close from a rolling maul and Simon Kerrod followed up with a drive that seemed it may have brought a try. A TMO decision would have been called for, had it been available, but maybe the ball was millimetres short, and the ball was eventually cleared.
Having withstood the Jersey pressure, Carnegie countered with a try for captain Burrows from a Sinfield pass, the conversion leaving Jersey 33-22 behind.
There was good impact from Jersey's bench, with Sami Fisilau entering the fray at half-time and four forward replacements around the hour mark: Nick Selway, Nacho Lancuba, Gary Graham and Uili Kolo'ofa'i. The penalty count continued to go Jersey's way as Carnegie struggled to defend legally, and this created chances for attacking lineouts, two of which were finished by Kolo'ofa'i. The latter score made it 33-32 with both conversions missed, firstly by Lewis Robling and then by Brendan Cope who succeeded with just one of his four attempts.
But Jersey still had time to force the win, although their prospects looked bleak when the Carnegie pack showed their power with a series of drives that brought multiple penalties and two yellow cards for the visitors: Gary Graham for taking objection to an opponent's rucking style and Lewis Robling a minute later for bringing down a maul. Both players knew they would not return before full-time, but their remaining colleagues forced Carnegie to concede possession for obstructing at the maul. Jersey were awarded a scrum and were dominating this phase of the game, securing another penalty to clear their lines and then getting another award which Cope kicked into his opponents' half.
As play entered the dying stages, Burrows escaped a possible penalty for preventing release when the referee ruled the ball was unplayable and gave Jersey a scrum 40 metres out. With replacement back Mark McCrea packing down at flanker to give his side as much scrum weight as possible, Jersey won three scrums but couldn't draw a penalty, only two resets and then were finally forced to play the ball. Fisilau made a few yards but eventually the ball went loose and a Carnegie player pounced on it; a few seconds later Sinfield had launched the ball off the park and it was Carnegie, not Jersey, who were beginning preparations for a home final.
A clearly emotional Harvey Biljon spoke afterwards of his frustration at falling just short of failing to deliver the win for the many thousands following back home in Jersey, but of his pride in the commitment and resolve of his players.
The match was watched by a crowd given officially at just 627, which left the combined total attendance for the two semi-finals just shy of 1,300 people. Knowing that three times that number might have packed into St Peter for a final made defeat even tougher to take, although the manner of the loss did great credit to Jersey RFC and all the club's supporters, around 200 of whom were watching a live streaming of the game back at the clubhouse at St Peter (pictured below by William Church).
The Reds will now look to regroup in time for the Good Friday visit of London Scottish, who will face Jersey at St Peter at 3pm.
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Yorkshire Carnegie: Jonah Holmes; Oli Goss, Andy Forsyth, Tom Casson (Fred Burdon HT), Taylor Prell; Kevin Sinfield, Chris Pilgrim; Charlie Beech (Lee Imiolek 60), Joe Graham (Phil Nilsen 59), Rob O'Donnell (James Tideswell 59), Dean Schofield (Tom Ryder 50), Matt Smith, Chris Jones (Andy Saull 68), Chris Walker, Ryan Burrows (capt). Unused replacement: Joel Hodgson.
Jersey: Ross Adair; Tom Howe, Oli Evans (Mark McCrea 78), Lewis Robling (YC 72), Rich Lane; Brendan Cope, Joel Dudley (Sami Fisilau HT); Sam Lockwood (Nacho Lancuba 60), Joe Buckle (Nick Selway 50), Simon Kerrod, Nick Campbell, Pierce Phillips, Alex Rae (capt), James Freeman (Gary Graham 60, YC 71), Nick Haining (Uili Kolo'ofa'i 54). Unused replacement: Danny Herriott
REFEREE: Sean Gallagher (IRFU)
Half Time: 26-17
Tries: Forsyth 16, Prell 20, O'Donnell 25, Holmes 37, Burrows 55
Conversions: Sinfield 16, 20, 37, 55
Tries: Haining 3, Freeman 32, Adair 33, 41, Kolo'ofa'i 62, 68
Conversion: Cope 32
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