Carlisle Rugby Club prepare to take on Manchester, the fallen giants of North One West tomorrow, with the city side holding a nine-point lead at the top.

Almost at the halfway point of the season, it’s a good position to be in, but player-coach Matty Shields will insist on no slacking from his troops.

Manchester might not be the side of old, languishing a point above the drop zone, but they can be quite dangerous and capable opponents on their own patch.

They didn’t have to travel far last week and put up a reasonable performance in a 42-34 defeat at Stockport.

Considering they were 32-14 behind at half-time, that wasn’t a bad effort.

Not for the first time this season, Manchester got off to a slow start and conceded some soft tries – a trait which will not have gone unnoticed by Shields and his team.

Carlisle had extended their lead at the top with a 27-18 win at Birkenhead Park, one of those victories which are ground-out in determined fashion rather than achieved with flair and polish.

Plenty of elbow grease was needed for this one, but that is the nature of champions who can adapt best to changing circumstances – in games as well as from week to week.

Last Saturday’s performance was a case in point as it was in contrast to the previous match – a silky smooth taking apart of Stockport at Warwick Road.

The atmosphere was subdued after the Birkenhead Park match, as players reflected on a less than scintillating performance, but officials and supporters were trying to remember the last time Carlisle had travelled to Birkenhead and won, with the addition of a try bonus point.

Andy Glendinning and Grant Connon scored first-half tries which helped Carlisle into a 15-5 half-time lead and the bonus-point win was secured by touchdowns from Shields and Connon in the second half. Connon added a penalty and two conversions.

It wasn’t such a memorable weekend for Carlisle’s county neighbours Penrith as they laboured at Northwich and went down to a 47-24 defeat.

A four-try bonus point was some consolation but the fact that they started so badly will be a concern for coach Dave Preston.

They didn’t seem to have got the bus journey out of their legs early enough for, after 30 minutes, they trailed 33-7 and the game was effectively lost.

Although they rallied in the second half, and got themselves to within seven points of their hosts, a yellow card for man-of-the-match Matt Allinson stifled the comeback and two late tries carried Northwich clear.

Allinson was unlucky to be sin-binned as he stripped the ball carrier one more time but, in this instance, the referee said it was on the ground. It was a close call and reduced the visitors to 14 men at a crucial stage, robbing them of one of their big tacklers.

The home side rallied and took advantage but, if Penrith had started like they played the second half, it would have been a completely different matter.

The Penrith tries were scored by Adam Howe, Jamie McNaughton, Johnny Wills and Allinson to earn the bonus point.

It’s getting very congested behind Carlisle in the table with just six points separating the next eight teams. 

Penrith are sixth but just five points better off than tomorrow’s visitors Burnage, who currently occupy the final relegation place. 

De La Salle and Anselmians already look doomed for the drop but who goes down with them might not be clear until the final games are played.

Burnage certainly made short work of struggling De La Salle on Saturday, winning at home by 73-24.

There were no games in the Cumbria League last week but Aspatria and Cockermouth did meet in a League Cup tie at Bower Park. 

Aspatria won 41-12 but, due to other clubs withdrawing, both will progress to the semi-final.

The game might have been slightly more important to Aspatria as they suffered an opening-day defeat at the hands of Cockermouth and had one eye on some retribution.

Of more importance to both clubs was giving valuable game time to a number of younger players.

Aspatria also took the opportunity to introduce for the first time this season Chris Phillips and Craig Halligan, both experienced forwards and welcome additions to the Black Reds squad.

Phillips is living in the area but has just found time to start playing while Halligan, the former St Benedict’s forward, has also moved near the town. Both made impressive starts.

The Black Reds had established a 17-0 lead by half-time with tries from Matthew Atkinson and Grant Bethwaite, both converted by Jack Clegg who added a penalty.

A couple of minutes into the second half, Aspatria scored a third try by full-back Ken Bowes before Cockermouth came back with two tries, one of them converted by their man-of-the-match Ed Gate.

At 22-12, there was a hint of a serious challenge to the home side but, on 67 minutes, Aspatria ended any hopes of a revival.

Again, Patrick Noutch gave a strong helping hand for Bethwaite to finish off in style, bursting through a hole in the Cockermouth defence for the killer try.

After that score, Cockermouth could not respond and, during the final few minutes of the game, Aspatria ran in a further two tries from Atkinson and young prop Jack McCoubrey.

Tomorrow, Aspatria host Whitehaven, Cockermouth are at home to Upper Eden, leaders Keswick travel to Hawcoat Park and Wigton host St Benedict’s.