With multiple players missing, strength in depth was the key for the Cheetahs as they took on Maidstone for the second time this season. Numerous players stepped up to fill the cleats of others, performing admirably on a hot day in St Albans. Things started extremely brightly and in somewhat unusual fashion: an early interception by corner Charles Quincy set the offence up in prime position and Mark Foster, fresh from playing snaps at safety, came straight in to play at quarterback. The first offensive snap was a hand-off to…offensive lineman Stuart
Butcher (obviously!?). The big man moved with some impressive speed and power, following his lineman colleagues to smash the ball home, with a somewhat dubious dive into the end zone included. The 2pt was no good as the Pumas recovered a muffed snap, but the tone was well and truly set.
The defence was in no mood to let that tone up. Starting almost at the halfway line, the Pumas were repeatedly swarmed at the point of attack and pushed back to force a 3-and-out. The second offensive drive didn’t follow quite the example set by the first, but the black and yellow did good work in establishing the inside run game, Butcher instrumental in forcing the Pumas defence to shore up the box. QB Mark Foster came in and did well to read the blitzing D, throwing a quick pass to receiver Ben Weeks to get into Maidstone territory. The drive stalled there, the Cheetahs going for it on 4th and medium but failing to move the sticks.
It looked like there was to be little opportunity for the away side to get going, with pressure from the defensive line and in particular defensive end Oli Stein causing problems for the visiting quarterback. However, an inside run gave Maidstone first down before the QB launched a downfield shot, which the receiver did a fantastic job to haul in and take down inside the redzone, with only a last ditch tackle from Foster preventing points being put on the board. The Pumas failed to take advantage of the shift in momentum, forced back on successive plays before the pass was gifted into the grateful arms of Foster for the takeaway.
Order restored, Herts aggressively pounded forward. Big runs were at the heart of the next drive as running backs Dan Levett and Jake Ingles took turns to torment the Pumas. It was over almost as soon as it began as Ingles walked into the end zone behind strong blocking work on the outside. The 2pt try was incomplete and almost picked off.
All credit to Maidstone, who failed to let what looked like the beginning of a similar story get the better of them. They kept playing hard, though the Cheetahs defence had zero interest in letting them progress – an attitude epitomised by a big sack from Ryan Hargreaves. Ben Brown’s excellent punt return took the Cheetahs back inside the opposing half, where it was a familiar story. This time, it was Dan Levett reading his blocks well to find his way in for the score. This time the 2pt was converted, with a pass from Karagulle to Weeks.
The pressure just kept coming from the D, getting themselves off the field almost as soon as they were on. Despite some early communication failures, the O managed to grind away at the Pumas again, a strong grab by tight end Luke Neal playing a pivotal role in moving the chains. TJ Ajayi broke big on a reverse play, taking the ball for 40 yards down inside the redzone. Ingles converted via a smart run up the middle, though again the 2pt was no good.
A couple of wayward passes again caused Maidstone to punt, leading to what the Cheetahs’ Special Teams will have to pretend was a designed play, with Ben Brown fumbling the punt into the path of Ben Weeks for a not unreasonable starting position on the opposition 30. Receiver Ant Lavender was unlucky not to pick up a TD on the very next play, Karagulle launching a shot that was hauled in and taken down to the 1 yard line before being forced out of bounds. As the half drew to a close, Karagulle collected the points himself on a designed QB sneak that Maidstone could do nothing to prevent.
The first half ended with the Cheetahs leading 34-0.
Ajayi was clearly relishing his experience at running back, picking up in the second half where he finished in the first, by busting out huge back to back runs that took the Cheetahs down inside the 5 yard line. Craig Cudmore was able to pound in the score, followed by a first reception of the season for receiver Joe Edgar to convert the 2pt. Maidstone had a glorious chance to counter on the ensuing kick-off as a missed blocking assignment sprung the returner downfield – he got all the way clear before tripping as he entered the red zone, much to his obvious frustration! Not to waste the opportunity, the Pumas scored the touchdown the kick return deserved on the very next play, with a well timed option pitch. They converted the XP to put a full 7 points on the board.
It took the Cheetahs just one play to respond. Clearly incensed by the Maidstone score, running back Dan Levett took the rock the full 62 yards on a run play, leaving the Maidstone secondary in the dust. The 2pt try was no good. With the Pumas resurgence smashed back into its box, the game began to lull just a little. An extended Pumas drive look set to stall, until…well, whatever happened on the subsequent punt return, its safe to say that returner Weeks may no longer take any advice to use his head. The Pumas got the ball back and started on their own 33.
Not willing to waste a chance to regain some momentum, a couple of big shots from Maidstone took them deep inside Cheetahs territory. As so often they have this season though, the D proved clutch under pressure, forcing a turnover on downs. Backed up against their endzone, the Cheetahs did a good job getting back out into the open field before punting for the first and only time in the game. The punt itself was a beauty, pinning the away team at their own 25. As the game was drawing to a close, legs were visibly tiring, with the exception of Jake Ingles. Forced into another quick punt, Ingles followed his blocks beautifully to the house, and was desperately unfortunate to see the score called back for a penalty that more or less wrapped up the game.
FINAL: Cheetahs 48-7 Pumas.
Chairman Luke Clark said after the game “We are delighted to be sitting 7-0 and atop the SFC 2 South after a tough win against an improving Maidstone side. A week off will give us the chance to smooth out the rough edges before we welcome the Portsmouth Dreadnoughts – who may well be the toughest test of the season.”
We wish the Pumas the best of luck for the remainder of the season. Up next for the Cheetahs is the Portsmouth Dreadnoughts at home on the 23rd July. This should be a tasty game against a side still in the hunt for a playoff place, so we hope to see you at St Albans Rugby Club!