I Am Spartacus
After sidling into a two score lead, the league leaders peg King’s back and push them all the way to the whistle in a tussle which sees both sides finishing out on their feet.
Having endured the wild conditions and overcome their stubborn hosts seven days ago, King’s returned home to glorious Autumnal sunshine in SW London, but standing between them and a sixth league win were formidable opposition in high-flying Old Reigatian. OR have enjoyed an almost perfect to their 2017-18 London 2SW campaign with a 100% win record, five try bonus points achieved and comfortably the meanest defence in the league having conceded just 57 points whilst scoring 182. Having beaten King’s home and away in 2016-17 the visitors would have surely arrived confident of continuing their excellent form, but King’s too were a team on a roll and determined to put a marker down against the visitors.
Personnel changes were few from the trip to Eastleigh, and at one point it looked as if just one alteration would be made. That plan went awry however when both Nicky Rawlinson and Barry Williams withdrew late from the squad, as a consequence of which Harry Wakefield was drafted in to start at openside in place of Rawlinson and James Shaw brought up from the 2XV to take Williams’ place on the bench. The only other changes saw Daniel Staunton back at lock, Sam Young moving to No.8 and Will Kibblewhite in for Neil Williams to provide backs cover. With a swing of young referee Benjie Ainsworth-Taylor’s arm, at 3pm the action was underway.
From the off OR sought to assert themselves as they pressed King’s back and ensured that the initial play was largely contained within the host’s half. Strangely for two teams who ordinarily exhibit deft ball skills, in the opening stanza these were conspicuous by their absence and almost every play culminated in a knock-on or similar error. Due in no small part to the regulatory of the mistakes, the early OR incursions were to come to nothing and gradually King’s were able to alleviate the pressure, helped by a dominant set-piece which was disrupting OR at source. Indeed it was from one such shunt that the first opportunity for points was to present itself as a retreating OR scrum was penalised, but the kick missed.
Having weathered the early OR storm King’s slowly began to grow in confidence and with 17mins gone won themselves a penalty which was kicked to the corner. OR are rightly proud of their execution of the driving maul, but today it was King’s turn to show they too can make it work when they need to, Brett Williams the player in possession as the ball crossed the line, Gareth Stoppani adding the two; 7-0. Soon after King’s were required to make their first substitution as wing Max Morgan was forced off and Will Kibblewhite joined the fray, although the swap caused minimal disruption and within moments King’s were back on the attack. This time it was the turn of the three-quarters to show what they were capable off as a series of phases culminated in a jinking run and offload from Will Nelson, and was finished by a delighted Gareth Stoppani; 12-0. For the visitors things were to turn from bad to worse when two minutes later they conceded another penalty, lost a man to a yellow card and Gareth Stoppani’s kick was good; 15-0.
Things needed to change for OR, and they did. Their first step was a tactical withdrawal of their tighthead from the action and the ploy almost immediately paid dividend as their scrum stability improved. Oddly for a team that were ahead King’s began to stagnate and OR seized upon this ponderous passage of play from the hosts to ramp up the pressure. With 42mins of the first half played OR won three penalties in quick succession, King’s could and should have cleared the danger from the first two, but did not and when OR got a third they opted for the corner and on came the expected drive and, now deep into injury time, OR plunged over for a converted score of their own; 15-7.
The last knockings of the opening period had come at a cost to King’s as not only had they conceded a morale boosting score to their visitors but David Lawson and Will Slater had been injured and both needed to be replaced. Whilst James Shaw was a straight switch for David Lawson, elsewhere King’s had to improvise, centre Calum Williams moving to scrum-half, flanker Harry Wakefield going to 12 and prop Matthew Scott tasked with playing a half in the back-row. Whilst far from perfect the first half had not lacked for interest and as the teams lined up for the second forty there was all to play for. Wasting no time at all King’s went on the offensive and soon Gareth Stoppani was lining up a penalty awarded for offside, a moment later and the flags were aloft; 18-7.
This score appeared to have a rousing effect on OR and with their coaches’ half-time words still no doubt ringing in their ears, they upped their game. A sequence of attacks put King’s on the back foot and in an isolated defensive lapse OR’s livewire scrum-half (and King’s MOM nomination) slipped a tackle and a neat pass put his onrushing fullback clear for a simple finish; 18-14. Now OR really did have the bit between their teeth and having wrestled the ball off King’s inside their own half they embarked on an extraordinary 38 (thirty eight) phase attack. During this 5 minute passage of play OR’s single-minded perseverance was matched only by King’s staunch defence which only ended when the referee raised his arm and gave a penalty which OR duly kicked; 18-17.
With a shade under 20mins to play and territory and possession percentages both skewed hugely in favour of the visitors, it looked only a matter of time before they scored again. Indeed ten minutes later King’s were adjudged to be offside in midfield, the penalty awarded slightly right of centre and 25m out. King’s were reprieved though as the kick was pushed wide. Whilst OR continued to fling bodies into wave upon wave of attack, each one was repelled. In the end, with 45 minutes played, OR got the penalty they craved, this time though they eschewed the kick and went instead for the lineout inside the home 22. King’s mustered whatever energy that had left to resist the drive and when it ground to a halt the referee signalled a defensive scrum. Although it had to be re-set once, the second time they was no more drama as Calum Williams put the ball dead and at last the spectators could draw breath; 18-17.
OR appeared shocked and disappointed in equal measure to have finished the game as the losing side, and on the balance of play it was easy to see why. That said the King’s side they encountered today offered unwavering defence and whilst the result will no doubt irk the visitors, they will know both sides had chances to win, the difference was that King’s took theirs on a day when they were unable to. OR have traded places with Camberley and now sit second, and Farnham may well feel the wrath of their hosts next weekend as they seek to get back to winning ways.
OR nominated Harry Wakefield as their man of the match, although without degenerating into total rugby clichés, it could very well have gone to any number of the team. The determination and unwillingness to wilt in the face of a relentless period of pressure which lasted from more or less the 30th minute to the 85th was something that should not be underestimated. Even with players out of position, and others limping though the death throes of the match, the side tackled itself to a standstill with downright obstinance. Next Saturday it’s a difficult trip to the team that overtook King’s today, Twickenham, another club who have aspirations for a lofty finish, and if the game is half as tight and well-contested as today's was then it will be a cracker.
Tries: Brett Williams, Gareth Stoppani
Conversions: Gareth Stoppani
Penalties: Gareth Stoppani x 2