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By Annie Coulson
2nd September
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Bluebirds XV took their newest players to Harlow to give them some game time before the league campaign begins.

Saturday 31st August saw the Bluebirds travel to Harlow to take part in a triangle tournament with Harlow RFC and Harwich Owls. Harlow Ladies will be in the same league as Chelmsford this season, whilst Harwich are the league above, and their experience in that higher league was evident on the day, with Harwich winning against both Harlow and Chelmsford and not conceding a single try that day.

Chelmsford’s Bluebirds took a brand new team to Harlow, with the only experienced and consistent players available on the day being Captain Mini Nowlan and former Vice Captain Karly Harrington. Every single other player was either new to the game, new to the team, or returning from either injury or maternity. This tournament was the first opportunity for these players to take some contact before the league campaign and the progression the team - and every individual - showed throughout the day demonstrated the need to blow off some cobwebs.

Chelmsford’s first game was against Harlow, who had already warmed themselves up against Harwich in the first of the three games. The opening minutes of this first game were hard to watch for Chelmsford supporters. This preseason has seen players work incredibly hard on their fitness, returning to basic skills and strengthening their set piece, but the hard ground over the summer has meant that contact training has been limited for safety reasons and this was evident at the start of Chelmsford’s game time.

In the opening minutes of the Chelmsford vs Harlow game, Chelmsford missed 90% of tackles and it was only Harlow’s own fumbles that kept the score 0-0 to begin with.
Early on, Chelmsford lost their starting hooker, Heather Saville, to injury and returning player Zoe Wager – who missed preseason and had intended to play a few minutes at the end of the day – was brought on. Wager had started to lose some enthusiasm for the game towards the end of last season but Saturday saw her return to form and she made good ground on several occasions. Perhaps the most game changing moment for Chelmsford was when Karly Harrington was brought on to the pitch at fly half. Within second, Harrington had devastated a Harlow player and her ruthless defence and strong tackling boosted the confidence of her teammates tenfold. From the moment Harrington made her first tackle, it was like the rest of the team got over a fear of hitting the ground and their defence strengthened dramatically. Harlow only put one more try on the board after Harrington came on.

In the second half of that game, Chelmsford managed to put some points on the board too as the incoming Vice Captain, Maddy Hughes, picked the ball from the back of the scrum and outpaced the Harlow back line to score out wide. Hughes credited Nowlan and Harrington for making the call but it was her speed off the back of the scrum that enabled that try – she had crossed the try line before the tight five had even left the scrum!
In their second game of the day, Chelmsford faced Harwich Owls. Harwich are in the league above and can boast two county level players. Only those two Harwich players put any points on the board against Chelmsford and that was entirely based on breakaway runs by fast players. Had the game been 15 a side, they would not have got through the defensive line but the gaps were just too big to cover at times. The score at full time was 12-5 to Harlow.

Harwich had a really solid defence and thwarted a couple of Chelmsford tries mere metres from the line. Marcys Jackowska showed particular speed and, had she not been tackled into touch within sniffing distance of the try line, she would absolutely have scored the Bluebirds some points. Again, this might have gone very differently had they been playing with a full team of 15, because Jackowska would have had players to run supporting lines, keeping the ball in play. Unfortunately, Harwich had only 11 players and, as the tournament was played under the rules of the National Challenge 2 league, the other teams had to match.

Despite the loss of both games, the Harwich coach congratulated Chelmsford for challenging his team and acknowledged that without Holly Cuozzo and Mimi Montgomery having the speed and power to breakaway, the game would have gone very differently. The score at full time was 24-0 to Harwich.

Particular praise needs to be given to certain Chelmsford players who were thrown in at the deep end and performed magnificently.

Laura Farnsworth, a long time Bluebird, and Marcys Jackowska, returning for her second full season, both returned to the pitch after only recently giving birth. Both players received their 6 week sign off from the doctors and immediately made themselves available to play. Both players had intended to ease back in with half a game but, as is always the way, other injuries meant that both Farnsworth and Jackowska played almost every minute of rugby going! Farnsworth’s strong defensive play and her experienced eye were a welcome return and Jackowska has incredible speed both in terms of how she moves and how she reacts to the game in front of her. It was wonderful to see them back on the pitch.

Michelle Powell played her first ever game of rugby; another player who intended to ease into the sport and found herself playing every game going! Powell joined us at the start of July with no prior experience and yet, after Hughes was taken off injured, Powell was Chelmsford’s only remaining jumper for lineouts and she did a great job. Stylistically there may be a little refining to do but she was fearless! A fearless ball carrier, Powell had some good runs and she held her own in the second row too, despite having only tried her hand at flanker in training!

Forward of the match was awarded to Bethany Robinson, another new recruit. Robinson joined us in January 2019, following an Inner Warrior recruitment event and she has worked incredibly hard ever since. Robinson is physically very strong but beyond that, she takes every piece of advice and constructive criticism and she implements it immediately. In every single pause between games, Robinson worked hard to take advice on board and you could see her technique develop every time she went back on. A privilege to watch someone so passionate about improving and so willing to take advice, her recognition was well deserved.

Back of the match went to Jackowska, who played 3 positions and worked tirelessly despite not expecting much game time. She is an intuitive player – though someone ought to tell her she is meant to run away from contact! – and so scrappy. She never backs down, she could be facing the biggest player on the pitch or chasing a breakaway run, she simply never stops and that kind of heart is not something you can teach.

Throughout this day, the team showed so much progression and development that they actually came away feeling incredibly positive for the upcoming season. Coach Matt Whiffin had set the team two goals: to have fewer than 10 handling errors and fewer than 10 missed tackles. The handling was very good and they more than met that target and, after the initial poor start against Harlow, once they started to make tackles they landed them every time.

Chelmsford Bluebirds host Blackheath 2s on Sunday 8th September, kick off 2.30pm, in their first league game of the season. Entry to the game is free and the bar will be open, spectators are more than welcome!

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