“If you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted, one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?”
Only the Cambridge players and coaching staff will be able to explain if Eminem’s Lose Yourself was on the playlist in the dressing room before the National League One match of destiny against Birmingham Moseley, but either way, there could not be a more appropriate opening set of lyrics to set the scene for what was to unfold at Grantchester Road on Saturday
Heading into the game in third place, behind Rams and Sale FC, there was only one possible outcome for glory.
Lose, Cambridge would remain in third place. Draw, they would stay in third place. Win, they would stay in third place. Win with a bonus point, they would seal the title and earn promotion to the Championship for the first time in the club’s history.
Elevation to rugby’s second tier was within their grasp once before, in the 2008/09 season, only for a late, mid-season change to promotion and relegation criteria by the RFU that meant the second-placed team would no longer be promoted. That team was Cambridge, by three points.
On the final day of that season in 2009, the opponents were from the Midlands, the champions Birmingham & Solihull, who were played off their own park at their celebration party as Cambridge ran out 45-29 winners.
A lot has happened in the intervening 14 years, but it was another team from Birmingham, Moseley, that were looking to play party-poopers this time.
However, Cambridge ended up giving a demonstration of all the skills and traits of a title-winning team.
Patience, resilience, defensive nous, discipline, flair, physicality, it was like a tick-list of what is required to end a 26-game season in first place.
We will come to the statistics later, but it is worth considering for one moment the mention of first-place – the first time this season that Cambridge hit top spot was at 4.42pm on Saturday, April 29, which is a breathtaking achievement.
The ground was packed, with viewing vantage points at a premium, and the nerves among the crowd grew as the deadlock took its time in being broken.
You had wondered what approach would be taken by the hosts. They had run in 28 tries in their previous three games and knew that four for a bonus point was a must.
There could have been a temptation to adopt a sevens approach, go for the bonus point first and then focus on winning the game, but the mental resolve of the team was never going to allow that to happen.
The defensive rigidity of Moseley was ultimately a boost to Cambridge, they were going to be made to work extremely hard for the victory as points and tries were not going to be given away easily.
Dan Lewis’ 22nd minute penalty to give Moseley the lead was a galvanising factor that settled the game, and teed up a demonstration of all the best attributes of Cambridge and a lesson in try scoring.
There was a mixture of everything – phase-building for Joey Green to get through out wide for the first try after 30 minutes; a line-break from Joe Tarrant and pass wide for Kwaku Asiedu to show his speed in the 35th minute; Anthony Maka breaking from the base of a ruck to make it 19-3 at half time; and Willie Priestley going over from a catch and drive at a line-out in the 65th minute.
Asiedu finished with a hat-trick to end the season as National League One’s top try-scorer, with 33, having flown back in from a break in Marbella on the morning of the match and flying back out to Spain in the evening.
Ben Brownlie, who also had a trademark try from a set-piece, finished the campaign in second place in the division’s top try-scorers’ table with 28, while Steff James, who kicked seven conversions, was the third top points scorer in the league with 228.
Green got a second try and Kieran Duffin touched down once as Cambridge passed 1,000 points, finishing with 1,002, thanks to the 59-10 win – their 10th successive victory.
The statistic that matters most, though, is the overall points haul, which was 114, the same as second-placed Rams but earning Cambridge the title by virtue of three defeats and a draw, to Rams’ four defeats.
When the final whistle went, there was almost a sense of disbelief as Cambridge’s players did not know quite what to do. There were no euphoric celebrations, just measured cheers and handshakes with their opposite numbers.
But they certainly heeded the advice from the aforementioned song – “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime”.
It is an opportunity that has been delivered through director of rugby Richie Williams, coaches Neil Harris and Anthony Allen, led by captain George Bretag-Norris and a gifted group of players and dedicated support staff.
The celebrations will no doubt last long into the off-season, before the excitement of hosting the likes of Wasps, Bedford Blues, Coventry, Jersey and Ealing Trailfinders.
Cambridge: Tarrant; Asiedu, Hema, Lloyd, Green; James, Duffin; Brownhill, Brownlie, Walker, Frost, Baxter, Bretag-Norris, Adams, Maka.
Replacements: Morley (Brownhill, 43), Collins (Walker, 43), Hoppe (Tarrant, 59), Priestley (Brownlie, 61), Bryan (Duffin, 61),
Birmingham Moseley: Harper; Bulumakau, Creed, Allsopp, Pointon; Lewis, Painter; Foreman, McNulty, Langley, Barnes, Butler, Le Roux, Morris, Stedman.
Replacements: Roach (Le Roux, 13), Le Roux (Roach, 25), Zindi (Morris, 36), Priest (Langley, 38), Roach (McNulty, 45), Langley (Foreman, 45), Ayling (Le Roux, 50), Morris (Butler, 50), English (Harper, 57), McNulty (Zindi, 70).
Scorers: 22min Lewis pen (0-3), 31 Green try – James con (7-3), 35 Asiedu try (12-3), 40 Maka try – James con (19-3), 42 Asiedu try – James con (26-3), 44 Zindi try – Lewis con (26-10), 48 Duffin try – James con (33-10), 51 Brownlie try (38-10), 65 Priestley try – James con (45-10), 68 Green try – James con (52-10), 79 Asiedu try – James con (59-10).
Sin bin: Cambridge – None; Birmingham Moseley – McNulty (technical offence, 13), Langley (technical offence, 25), Roach (technical offence, 62), Stedman (foul play, 77).
Referee: Daniel Rowlands.
Report: Mark Taylor
Winner’s Photo: Chris Fell