Mud, Mud, Inglorious Mud
As with games all over the country on Saturday, the conditions were to have a major say on proceedings, with local nous ultimately tipping the scales in favour of the home side.
With the league having had a week off and neither side involved in the RFU Intermediate Cup both sides were, or at least should have been, well rested as King’s visited Gosport Park for the first time since November 2010. As previously documented, Gosport & Fareham have spent the majority of the intervening years amid more esteemed company in London 1 South, although by their own admission the last two years at Level 6 were a struggle. Indeed a glance at the results showed that this season with six victories to their name already made it their most successful campaign since 2014-15 (8 wins) and they could easily have had at least a couple more having lost three games by four points or fewer – notably slender home defeats v’s Old Reigatian (26-30) and Twickenham (24-27). Having gone down by eight points to King’s in October they made no secret of their eagerness to send their visitors home empty-handed.
Selection proved something of a challenge for the trip to the coast, but not for the reasons hoped. Whilst the pack was largely undisturbed with just one swap required as Harry Wakefield was included at No.8 for the first time Andover away, the same could not be said of the three-quarters. With all three scrum-halves who have started to date in 2017-18 unavailable, 2XV regular Pete Wickham was given his first 1XV opportunity. Outside him Will Nelson was back at fly-half, and the plan had been for Luke Minors to remain at 12 with Angus Sanders on the wing and for Guy TYLER to have a cameo from the bench in his first game of the season. All that went to pot though when Sanders withdrew late in the day and instead Luke Minors was pushed out to the wing, and Guy TYLER instated at inside centre from the start. It also meant the team travelled with just 17. In the back-three further adjustments were required as Max Morgan shifted from wing to full-back and Neil Williams slotted in on the right flank. If preparations had been a little flustered, this disharmony was mirrored by the weather which was blustery, dank and dreary, and remained as much throughout, when the whistle blew at 1359.
Away supporters could be counted in the fingers of one hand, and their hopes of a fast start was dashed at they watched the wind have an immediate influence on matters as King’s kick-off sailed harmlessly into touch. Had any wondered if it was going to be ‘one of those days’, their fears deepened moments later when a scruffy passage of play culminated in a seemingly innocuous grubber kick down the left flank, and as a covering Luke Minors went to hack the ball into touch his kick ricocheted off a Gosport leg and over the goal line with the home side’s left winger presented with the easiest scoring opportunity he’ll ever have as he simply ran on and flopped on the ball. A fine touchline conversion improved the score; 7-0.
Things could barely have started better for the home side, nor any more underwhelmingly for the visitors. Their luck was not to improve however, as mid-way though the untidy half the indomitable Thomas Cobb suffered a dead leg from which he could not recover and was replaced prompting another almighty reshuffle, Nicky Rawlinson going to hooker, Guy TYLER to flanker, Luke Minors back to centre and Josh Dhillon onto the wing for his 1XV debut. In amongst it all skipper Joe Mason also contrived to break his nose. Five more somewhat insipid minutes later and King’s found themselves down to 14 as the referee made the bizarre decision to sin-bin Daniel Staunton for a deliberate knock-on in the tackle despite the fact that both his arms had been wrapped behind the Gosport player and his head on the opposite side to the ball in a position from which he could not possibly have seen it. Even one or two of the massed ranks of raucous home support were gracious enough to concede their surprise at the punishment.
During the time spent with numbers diminished the sides traded territory and possession with almost all of the action, although much barely amounted to such a description, restricted to the middle third of the field. When restored to their full complement things immediately improved for King’s as from a lineout just inside the Gosport half a deft routine saw Harry Wakefield set free in the 5m channel with the loose forward outpacing the defenders to dot down under the posts from where Max Morgan converted; 7-7. Whilst the side-line howled its disapproval about the legality of the move, the arbiter found no fault with it, nor for that matter any scrum or lineout all day, and it was refreshing to see two well matched packs allowed to get on with the game without constant judicial interference. As it transpired neither side troubled the scoreboard operator again in the first period and retreated to the changing rooms all square.
Having won the toss Gosport had elected to play away from the open expanses of water to the left of their clubhouse and into the wind as is, apparently, their preference. Afterwards the home side were to admit their surprise that the Old Boys had not made more of the prevailing breeze and they were to show in the second period how it should be done. Well, not quite, since just as King’s had seen their kick-off sail straight into touch so Gosport put theirs over the dead-ball line – no mean feat as will be shown to be the case. With the ball handed back to King’s at the ensuing scrum, a couple of relatively fluid phases later and Max Morgan was lining up a penalty inside the home 22. The kick, into the eye of the wind, was dragged wide. The reprieve appeared to spur ‘Gos’ on and with 54mins on the clock they strung together easily the best passage of the play thus far, which is to say play moved past the first receiver and more than two passes were actually caught, and they were able to scamper clear on the right flank for a neat try. Another excellent conversion doubled their tally; 14-7.
Matters were far from satisfactory from either team’s point of view. Owing to the wind King’s had little choice but to run from everywhere and were left relying on the pack, notably Brett Williams, Daniel Staunton and Peter Januszewski (the Gosport choice for MOM), to earn precious yards. Regrettably each time territory was gained it almost invariably was ceded back with an error as fatigue, a slippery ball and the conditions all played their part. Gosport were ahead but only by a score and presumably felt they deserved to be further clear and were being increasingly constrained by some determined tackling not least by ankle-chopper in chief James Shaw. When King’s were awarded a penalty for a ruck infringement the referee deemed that the repeat offences needed to stop and reached for his pocket. Before he had time to produce the card though James Shaw tapped the penalty, only to be stopped by a high tackle less than 10m from the mark. Somewhat inevitably the latent frustration boiled over and a melee ensued. In the end home centre Wayne Dugan was the recipient of a yellow for his part in the skirmish.
It was now Gosport’s turn to cope a man down and the chink in their armour did not go unnoticed by King’s as it was down the influential centre’s channel that King’s kicked and when the ball crossed the line it was the diminutive Guy TYLER between two defenders in a blur of limbs, the referee adjudging that the King’s man had won the race. Max Morgan drew the teams level again; 14-14. Gosport were adamant that the try should not have stood, and on balance they were probably right. Then again, King’s suffered an identical fate against Farnham so perhaps it was rugby’s equivalent of karma being redistributed. Thoroughly aggrieved Gos came again and after being held on or around halfway a long kick was launched which looked for all the world to have been kicked dead, but the home side of course knew better than King’s that the in-goal areas at Gosport Park are inordinately vast and so whilst the visitors naïvely gave up the chase the Gosport attacker did nothing of the sort and touched down just short of the sea. Fly-half Alex Duncombe capped his own MOM performance with a third successful conversion; 21-14. In the remaining quarter of an hour or so the teams all but cancelled one another out with Gosport briefly stretching their lead to 10 by virtue of a penalty before with just a few minutes remaining Max Morgan struck back with one of his own to bring King’s back to LBP territory and indeed that was all they were to have when time was called.
Today was not the sort that lends itself to the kind of rugby King’s favour, and in days of yore King’s sides might have got far grumpier far sooner and allowed themselves to be bullied out of a game like this. The class of 2018 however is seemingly made of sterner stuff and despite the inclement weather, partisan crowd and disruption to personnel before and during the game they kept scrapping and the losing BP was no less than they deserved. It was good to see Guy TYLER back, and he put in a trademark energetic 80mins, probably double what he had wanted or King’s had intended. For Gosport’s part they achieved what they have been threatening for a while by beating a top four side at home and proving that they are masters of the squall. They will surely now be targeting a top half finish and with only one of the top four clubs (Camberley) left to play they certainly have the fixtures to do so.
There was clearly something in the air in London 2SW yesterday as King’s were not the only side to be defeated by lower placed opposition indeed Old Reigatian, Twickenham, London Exiles and Farnham all lost to Winchester, Eastleigh, Andover and Effingham respectively. Old Tonbridgians nearly sprung as surprise of their own as they went down 19-35 to Camberley but it was a far from routine win for the champions elect. If there were any doubt that the league will be competitive right to the end that those results should dispel that myth. King’s will next host bottom side Eastleigh, but given the foregoing any suggestion that it will be anything other than another difficult game would be unwise.
Tries: Harry Wakefield, Guy TYLER
Conversions: Max Morgan x 2
Penalties: Max Morgan