The Perfect Ten
In a game where the lead changed hands six times it came down to a kick in the last play to determine who would be crowned victorious in a pulsating clash.
After an opening day win away at Old Alleynians under their metaphorical belt, King’s turned their attention to more familiar foe in the form of London Exiles. Exiles have finished 3rd and 6th twice in the previous three seasons, confirmation if it were required that they are rarely less than competitive and regular readers will be aware that the side is well capable of playing expansive rugby. Having succumbed to Twickenham last weekend Exiles would surely have been eager to secure their first points of the campaign without further delay.
Even at this most formative stage of the season already some match correspondents are bemoaning player unavailability, injures and the need to draw on an increasingly large pool of players. The reality is that just so as Liverpool FC used just 14 players across 42 games to win the old First Division in 1965-66, 27 were called upon last season in 38 games to finish 4th. As Bob Dylan observed, the times they are a changin’. From the 18 names listed against the Dulwich College alumni, just 7 appeared again and only 2 of the pack. It was not all bad news though as it meant plenty of players were given a chance to shine in what was the first home game of the season. With young referee Alex Lambe holding the whistle for the first time at Level 7, at 1502 the action commenced.
The early exchanges did not lack for energy even if the precision was lacking. For Exiles, their captain and No.8 Max Lazarevic led the way with some barrelling runs, although debutante Jack Griffin ended one with a shuddering hit to lift the home crowd. The majority of the play was in King’s half during the opening quarter and the hosts were floundering somewhat in their attempts to break the shackles and were lucky to escape on one occasion when Exiles spilled the ball over the line. Their cause was not helped by the loss of skipper Tom Dugarin with injury which saw the early introduction of Ed O’Callaghan and prompting a reshuffle with the new man on to the flank, Harry Wakefield to wing, Will Kibblewhite to 13 and Luke Minors to 12. Exiles seized on the disruption to score their first points as a penalty for a high tackle was successful; 0-3. Returning Jack Denison suffered a blood injury from a stray elbow in the build-up and was temporarily replaced by Greig Blackie, but was able to return after some medical attention and a photo for Instagram.
In fairness to King’s the first really decent passage of linked play saw them made deep incursions to within touching distance of the Exiles’ line. Several players tried their luck but it was a shimmy from James Sharpe which proved telling as he crossed for a five-pointer which Gareth Stoppani improved; 7-3. 7mins later though and it was King’s who were to be watching on as a successful conversion was kicked, 2pts added after the visitors’ fly-half had deftly created space though the middle and found his way to within inches of the whitewash, before one of his pack completed the task; 7-10. With 42mins played a seemingly innocuous scrum in midfield proved to be anything but as an unfortunate fumble from scrum-half James Sharpe was seized upon by a vigilant Exile and within seconds his teammate was thundering towards the line. Whilst a try seemed certain as it transpired it was to be anything but as it appeared in fact Luke Minors had pulled off a miraculous covering tackle to hold up the ball-carrier. Referee Lambe lay prostrate on the floor in the in-goal area staring at a tangle of limbs for several seconds before he ultimately satisfied himself the try was to stand. The conversion could not be missed and indeed it was not; 7-17.
Still time remained in the half and King’s made best use of it as a searing break from Duncan Bucknell was halted by what was undeniably a ‘seatbelt’ tackle. Remarkably it went unpunished and even the visiting players and followers looked sheepish. King’s did not squander the territory however and after pulling the defence left and right a try looked inevitable but for a wayward pass which fell at the feet of the Exiles’ right wing. All he needed do was pick the ball up or hack it clear but matters conspired against him and he succeeded only in producing a step-over, and with the mouth of the gift-horse gaping open Gareth Stoppani needed no additional encouragement to dot down in the last action of the opening period.
With two tries a piece there was little to split the sides and whilst neither had played their best rugby both had shown plenty of attacking intent, which is no less than followers of the clubs have come to expect. Just had King’s had been rather lethargic in the opening moments of the match, so it was Exiles turn now as Will Kibblewhite – who on the day showed several glimpses of the sort of form which won him player of the season in 2016-17 – made plentiful ground down the right aided and abetted by Tom Smith. When the play swung back left the ball found its way into the hands of Ed O’Callaghan 25m out who elected to put his head down and against the odds smashed his way though the last two defenders to cross out wide. The kick missed but King’s were level; 17-17. If Exiles were disappointed to have leaked a ‘soft’ try then their mood would not have improved when 5mins later an almost identical scenario recurred, this time the ball was turned over in midfield and came to Will Kibblewhite who from the Exiles 10m line threw a dummy then accelerated to the line dragging two defenders with him did to recorded King’s bonus point score; 22-17.
In a game of ebb and flow the tide was then to turn against the hosts as within two minutes there was an extended break in play after James Sharpe was on the receiving end of a very heavy contact as he fell on a loose ball in his 22. With his withdrawal an even more drastic shuffle than in the first period was called for, this time Gareth Stoppani coming in to play scrum-half as Ed O’Callaghan went to wing with Greig Blackie back on in the back-row. Exiles were not in the mood for mercy however and after several minutes of pressure, MOM Lazarevic smashed over from the base of a scrum and with it Exiles led again; 22-24. The clash was now finely poised and just as King’s craved a score of any variety, so Exiles searched for their own try BP.
As the match entered its final quarter the tension on and off the pitch was ratcheting up. When Exiles attacked down the left flank, the ball carrier was halted by a ‘seatbelt’ tackle identical to that which has felled Duncan Bucknell earlier in the match and the whistle blew loud. The decision was correct of course but the frustration from King’s was palpable for obvious reasons. With injustice bubbling just below the surface King’s were hindered further moments later when stand-in skipper Joe Mason was confined to the bin for a ruck offence. His enforced absence meant a prop was required and Paul Calaminus duly entered the fold in a 1XV shirt for the first time since 2016-17. King’s were working hard to escape from their own half but a even when penalties were won a mis-firing lineout meant pressure soon came on again. It was to their credit that no scores were conceded despite the numerical disadvantage.
With 39mins gone it looked like perhaps a stalemate had been reached but then on a sudden King’s were the team with the impetus as they managed a rare incursion into Exiles’ territory. When the referee’s arm was raised for a penalty on the 10m line Gareth Stoppani wasted no time in signalling posts and with all gathered looking on with nervous anticipation his kick perfectly bisected the posts; 25-24. 3mins to play was the call but plenty was to happen. First of all from the restart King’s secured the ball and made their way forward, prop Brett Williams carried into contact and as he looked to offload it seemed for all the world that an Exiles hand, intentionally or otherwise, slapped the ball down. Regrettably the player and the referee saw things rather differently and following an exchange of views the latter sent the former from the field for his, admittedly inappropriate, choice of words. From the penalty Exiles surged forward and with 46mins on the watch were awarded a penalty inside the 22 mid way from touch to the posts. The visitors’ kicker who was yet to miss unfortunately for him saved his worst for last as the ball slewed to the left and with it time was called.
On the balance of play a draw would not have been an unfair result and Exiles will undoubtedly, and not unreasonably, have been left disappointed. They were gracious in defeat and they were to pick as King’s MOM Ed Forshaw – making it a brace of No.8s for that award. There is little doubt that once the league finds its rhythm that Exiles will more than likely be back in the top-half mix again and King’s will have a tough task on their hands come 15th December when the return leg at Barn Elms comes around. Until then we wish them well.
It’s so far so good for King’s with a maximum ten points secured which sees them sitting third going into the third round of games. Next is the visit of another Barbarian style club in the shape of Old Tonbridgians who went some way to making up for the opening day disappointment of a defeat by Farnham when drawing with Twickenham in round two. Last season King’s got the better of OTs twice, but will take nothing for granted under the lights this Friday. It’ll be a 1930 ko and you are warmly invited to come and see if King’s can make it a hat-trick of wins to start the season, something they haven’t achieved since 2015.
Tries: James Sharpe, Gareth Stoppani, Ed O’Callaghan, Will Kibblewhite
Conversions: Gareth Stoppani
Penalties: Gareth Stoppani