Cornish Pirates managed to put the emotion of Chris Stirling's imminent departure aside and score a valuable 21-20 victory over Bedford Blues at Mennaye Field yesterday.
That result – their first win in three attempts against the Blues this season – puts them into the semi-finals of the Championship play-offs and granted outgoing high performance manager Stirling's wish of making the day about the reaching the last four, rather than him.
The outcome was in some doubt as the seconds of his reign counted down. A late try from the Blues' replacement, Darren Fox – and a conversion from Jake Sharp – brought the scores back to within one point with seven minutes remaining.
It took all the professionalism Stirling has instilled in his men over his three years at the club to see out the game, after earlier home tries from Carl Rimmer and Andrew Suniula, along with some steady goal-kicking from Rob Cook and Ceiron Thomas.
Stirling said: "Defensively, we were pretty good today, even though the opposition slipped through for a couple of tries in the second half.
"When the team defend like that, you know they really want it. There's a bit of rugby to be played but I know we're good enough. The questions were asked of us early on and stood up."
The four Pool B points earned yesterday renders next weekend's trip to face Leeds a dead rubber, so the club's newly appointed head coach Ian Davies has time build his own battle-plan for the semi-finals, beginning in the first week in May.
Davies said: "We spoke all week about the fact that we had to win because we didn't want to go to Headingley and make it winner-takes-all this week. It showed in the performance today, it was very bitty although there was some good defensive effort.
"There were some elements that were a little poor too. Bedford came here with nothing to lose – they knew they were in the semi-finals already, and showed what an attacking threat they are."
The Blues' potency with the ball in hand stretched the Pirates early on. Despite making numerous changes to their usual XV, they worked through countless phases to break the Pirates' defensive line in a strong opening spell.
They were unable to apply the finish despite their domination, however. The Pirates' side of three seasons ago would surely have buckled but the class of 2012 stood firm for the loss of two kickable penalties to Bedford, both missed by visiting fly-half Jamie Lennard.
The Pirates fought for attacking opportunities of their own too. Suniula was proving an effective battering ram for them but lacked the guile to make it count on occasions. One promising move fell apart when he passed to his left despite two men running an overlap to his right.
The home pack was also capable of causing damage and it was a successful catch and drive that brought Rimmer's try after 30 minutes, arguably against the run of play.
Cook hit the post with his conversion attempt but extended the Pirates' lead to eight points with a penalty four minutes later, after another Suniula break.
The Blues infringed on multiple fronts to prevent that move working its way clear to the try-line.
Referee Luke Pearce gave winger Handre Smidt a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on – perhaps the most pertinent of his side's misdemeanours.
The visitors did get some reward for their hard work in the opening 40 minutes when Lennard struck a penalty after an infringement from the Pirates' hooker, Dave Ward.
Suniula's ability to exploit a gap came to the fore again early in the second half.
The American international ran straight through to the try line, with full-back Cook converting.
Cook's opposite number then showed excellent finishing ability with the ball in hand, carving through the Pirates' defence and rounding his run towards the posts from outside the Pirates' 22. Lennard added the conversion from close range.
A Cook penalty for looked to have settled his side again but he soon found himself in the sin bin for killing the ball. Lennard made it count, string the resulting penalty to bring the deficit back to five.
With Cook off the field, most expected winger Grant Pointer to take a potentially decisive Pirates penalty in the 67th minute.
However, Thomas took on the responsibility and confidently restored the Pirates' eight-point lead with his kick.
That margin proved crucial as the Blues showed all the spirit that brought them second place in the regular season phase of the Championship campaign with a strong finish to the game. A missed tackle in midfield allowed Sharp into the Pirates' 22 and he offloaded to Darren Fox for a close-range finish.
Sharp then set up a nervous final few minutes for Stirling with the conversion.
However, the Pirates' inspirational leader was able to leave Cornwall with one last win thanks to his side's resilience late on. The New Zealand Rugby Union's gain is Cornish Pirates' loss.
Cornish Pirates: Cook; Pointer, Hill, Suniula, Evans; Thomas, Cattle (capt); Rimmer (Brits 51), Ward (Elloway 72), Paver (Rimmer 68); McGlone (Ewers 68), Smith; Marriott (Burgess 80+4), Morgan, Maidment. Replacements (not used): Kessell, Penberthy, Cooper.
Scorers: Tries – Rimmer, Suniula; Conversion – Cook; Penalties – Cook (2), Thomas.
Yellow card: Cook.
Bedford Blues: Burke; Schmidt, Staff, Vass, Kohler; Lennard (Sharp 67), Baldwin (Liebenberg 67); Steenkamp (Reeves 46), Locke, Boulton (Cooper 46); Pailor (Tomes 46), Howard; Fisher (Fox 46), Harding (capt), Barrell. Replacement (not used): Cochrane.
Scorers: Tries – Burke, Fox; Conversions – Lennard, Sharp; Penalties – Lennard (2).
Yellow card: Schmidt.
Referee: L Pearce (RFU).