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Rochdale forward dominance shines through on a damp day at the seaside.

Rochdale’s evolving game plan stepped up another level today 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 with Rochdale winning the game 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. The Rochdale Ladies had umbrellas at the ready, with the Gents clad in their waterproofs, as the players left the coach in a sombre mood.

Team Manager Aaron Howorth 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 the previously somewhat overlooked second team captain Jed Woolfenden adding to the Dale squad, Aaron spoke of 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.

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 Rochdale 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. Rochdale’s continued dominance at the scrum is leaving a trail of dejected front five forwards across the North West. Rochdale’s scrum pressure 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 for the sea-siders.

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, and 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 20m and even in central areas of the pitch. Rochdale could feel this war of attrition turning as the game drudged past the first quarter. Rochdale tenacious defence was well coordinated 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.

Ironically the psychological break-through 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 leading to a great break from winger Blair Henry, only for the slippy ball to save Fleetwood. But for Fleetwood opting to run a clear 3-points in front of the posts the half ended 0-0. 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 Jed Woolfenden and Jake Smith to the pack and became even more dominant in the forwards. And it wasn’t long before a 10m scrum push, and continued pressure, was rewarded with 3-points from in-front of the posts for Coldman. And it wasn’t long before Coldman earned another 3-points following a Needham catch and carry at the lineout, combined with the now guaranteed Rochdale pressure, soon followed by another 3-pointer bouncing in, off the inside of the upright.

With 9 points on the scoreboard and entering the final quarter of the game Fleetwood didn’t give up and took any opportunity to run at Rochdale. But Rochdale fly-half James Duffy kept Fleetwood pinned down in their 22m with some clever territorial kicks combined with a well organised 3 man line defence on the receiver, with great counter-rucking from the omnipresent Coldman. Fleetwood were now 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 gain-line and driving on another 10m to allow Callaghan to score from close range to take Rochdale’s 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 Rochdale back into the Fleetwood 22m red zone. And, following close link-up play with scrum-half Travis Townsend and Foster, Fleetwood’s clearance failed to make touch and Duffy spotted the shallow Fleetwood defence and slotted an inch perfect cross-field kick for Henry to score a beauty in the corner, ending the game 0-21. Rochdale has 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-of-Match but this week it has to go to a forward. Any forward player could be given Man-of-Match following their dominance and well executed wet weather tactics. Man-of-Match goes to Redfern who, on a day like today, played a textbook role at blindside flanker and deservedly gets the accolade this week.

Match report from Richard Bradley