Vale of Lune suffered a 9-3 defeat away at Rochdale on Saturday as the Powderhouse Lane side had their strength in depth tested due to a number of key injuries.
Vale were without leading points scorer Damon Hall, full back Jordan Dorrington, Evan Stewart, prop Ross Pillow, flanker Jack Ayrton, wing forward Jack Sadler and threequarter Ben Dorrington, and the changes upset the balance of the team at Moorcroft Avenue.
A heavy pitch did not suit Vale’s style of play but even so the form book suggested that the league leaders should have the where-with-all to cope with a club next to bottom in the table and with only three wins to their name.
If sport was so simple there would be no place for the unexpected and a touch of drama.
Almost a year to the day the Vale lost at Moorgate Avenue, 28-5, after becoming the first side to beat Birkenhead Park the previous week, and the Vale slipped up once again.
For the first time this season they failed to score a try but there was some crumb of comfort because they did collect a losing bonus point.
However, their lead at the top of the table has been reduced to four points, following Firwood Waterloo’s victory at Carlisle, while Northwich’s home game against St Benedicts was postponed.
There are still games in hand and points to be garnered but the pack are beginning to gather, the pitches will be heavy for a while longer and the availability of players will become crucial factors in the push for promotion in a congested fixture list.
Vale made all the early running but despite all their huffing and puffing no real chances were created against a well organised defence that grew in strength and confidence the longer the game went on.
As was to be expected forwards Jack Ferguson, Andy Powers, Harry Fellows, James Mawdsley and Sam Wallbank all featured in the powerhouse.
In the backs, Chris Ramwell, Jack Turton, Jonty Higgin and Olly Jacques darted hither and thither, searching for some solid ground in the morass but after 10 minutes it was patently obvious it was going to be a war of attrition.
The first defining moment of what had been a pretty dour first quarter occurred in the 22nd minute when following a period of Rochdale pressure stand-off, James Duffy, kicked a penalty goal. As the ground started to cut up under steady rain, play became very scrappy, passes were dropped, muddy cul-de-sacs brought little reward for Kipling’s ‘muddied oafs,’ who struggled in the glue pot.
A rangy run from Jack Turton pushed Rochdale back but Vale lacked the cohesion to maintain the momentum.
It developed in a jigsaw of a game in which the key pieces were missing as far as the Vale were concerned.
There were moments in the first half when Vale’s pack heaved with might and main to send their opposite numbers backwards with clouds of earth flying in all directions and from one such situation the Vale were awarded a penalty which Jacques kicked in the 42nd minute of a half that had its moments, but not too many.
Both sides began the second half with a few meaningful exchanges before the game settled down to a familiar pattern. There were plenty of honest endeavours on display but the elements proved to be a limiting factor.
James Duffy kicked a 50th minute penalty and shortly afterwards ‘Dale had a player sin-binned but the Vale were unable to exploit the situation.
On the hour mark James Duffy kicked another penalty goal.
The Vale responded with a balanced break from Jonty Higgin, a charge from Sam Hoare but few gaps appeared in Rochdale’s resolute, watchful defence as the slog in the mud splurged its damp way into the closing stages.
Jack Ferguson appeared to have ground the ball beneath a mountain of bodies, but referee Bygrave, without a TMO to help him, ruled that a try had not been scored.
The volume was cranked up by the Vale in a desperate attempt to force a victory.
Chris Ramwell made a dancing break, Turton almost skipped through, Jacques broke clear but with fatigue beginning to set in the support troops were slow to arrive.
Rochdale safely negotiated the final stages of a contest that could be a game-changer for their future, while for the Vale this result will remind them that a long, hard road awaits if they are to realise their dreams and reach their ultimate goal.