Fleetwood fall to the forwards
ROCHDALE’S evolving game plan stepped up another level at Fleetwood with the power and experience of their pack dominating the set piece and the loose.
Under the damp conditions, Rochdale’s dominance of possession was a result of a narrower game and good continuity.
It gave little chance to a passionate Fleetwood side that capitulated under the pressure, Rochdale winning with 21 unanswered points.
Arriving at the Melbourne Avenue ground the Rochdale faithful looked out at the damp, grey day with low expectations for fast, flowing rugby.
Team manager Aaron Howarth contemplated some interesting changes to Rochdale’s front and back row with the return of stalwart Tom Callaghan at tight head, the introduction of the promising talent Andy Redfern at 6 and a move from second row to 8 for the lively Sean Needham.
And with second team captain Jed Woolfenden adding to the Dale squad, it spoke volumes for the depth of experience head coach Danny Collins has at his disposal.
Fleetwood have been scoring plenty this season but have felt unlucky with some results and have been hit with a number of long term injuries. And even though facing the first really wet game of the season the pitch was solid underfoot and had the potential for more points for the seaside team.
From a deep Rochdale kick-off, Fleetwood began their first attack with a real sense of purpose. But they soon discovered why Rochdale has the best defence in the league with the visitors immediately defending on the front foot, pressing the space with great line speed and discipline.
Rochdale’s first scrum of the afternoon was a statement of intent to the Fleetwood forwards. Their continued dominance at the scrum is leaving a trail of dejected front five forwards across the North West.
Scrum pressure from Rochdale resulted in most scrums flying backwards that, when combined with continuous pressing, gave the eager Fleetwood backs at best slow, messy ball.
With Rochdale’s forward dominance there seemed little prospect for Fleetwood and playing on the back foot seemed to be getting into their heads as the forced errors mounted.
Fleetwood tried to make the best of it but their playbook struggled to adapt to the Rochdale pressure, with their pick and go tactics failing to make any in-roads against the highly effective Rochdale guards. What little ball their backs had was forced into fragmented and isolated attacks.
Rochdale’s aggressive scrum again and again sent Fleetwood marching back sometimes 20 metres and even in central areas of the pitch. Rochdale could feel this war of attrition turning as the game drudged past the first quarter.
The tenacious defence was well co-ordinated with many individual acts of bravery typified by Rochdale’s young prospect Beltus Nonleh diving on loose ball to save his half-backs from dealing with a messy line-out.
Chances for the talented Rochdale backs were few and far between. One of note was from experienced full-back Jim Flitcroft as he picked a great line to smash through the Fleetwood defence only to be denied at the next breakdown.
Ironically, the psychological breakthrough came with the uncharacteristic binning of Oliver Coldman 10 minutes before half time.
Going down to 14 men seemed to strengthen Rochdale’s resolve with hooker Jonathan Bradley’s ever present pressure to the front of Fleetwood’s lineout led to a great break from winger Blair Henry, only for the slippy ball to save Fleetwood as the first half ended with the scoreboard being troubled.
However, as Rochdale left the pitch their faithful supporters could sense Fleetwood’s legs starting to buckle under pressure.
With the second half underway Rochdale introduced Woolfenden and Jake Smith to the pack and became even more dominant in the forwards.
And it wasn’t long before a 10 metre scrum push, and continued pressure, was rewarded with three points from in-front of the posts for Coldman.
Coldman earned another three points following a Needham catch and carry at the lineout.
That was followed by another three-pointer bouncing off the inside of the upright.
With nine points on the scoreboard and entering the final quarter of the game, Fleetwood didn’t give up and took any opportunity to run at their opponents.
But Rochdale fly-half James Duffy kept them pinned down in their 22m with some clever territorial kicks combined with a well organised three-man line defence on the receiver, with great counter-rucking from Coldman.
Fleetwood were struggling to get out of their own half with Rochdale knocking them back time and time again.
Rochdale’s first try finally came from another forward drive with Andy Foster breaking the gainline and driving on another 10 metres to allow Callaghan to score from close range to take the tally to 0-16, with the conversion from Coldman.
From the restart, Rochdale forwards combined well with the backs with linked play between Redfern and Coldman taking them back into the Fleetwood 22 metre red zone. And, following close linkup play with scrum-half Travis Townsend and Foster, Fleetwood’s clearance failed to make touch and Duffy spotted the shallow defence and slotted an inch perfect cross-field kick for Henry to score a beauty in the corner, ending the game 0-21.
Rochdale have now built an impressive squad, delivering a 15-man defence that has bettered every team for the last couple of months. Coldman as ever is an obvious candidate for Man-ofMatch but this week it has to go to a forward. Any forward player could have been given Man-of-Match following their dominance and well executed wet weather tactics.
Man-of-Match went to Redfern who, on such a day, played a textbook role at blindside flanker and deservedly earned the accolade this week.