Birmingham Exiles 17 – Kings Norton 16
It’s often been said that forwards win matches, and backs decide by how much. Some might venture that kicks at goal can from time-to-time have a bearing on the result....
Kings travelled to Exiles knowing that this would be a tough start to their league campaign. With the hosts narrowly missing out on promotion last year, and Kings looking to bounce straight back up, both sides had a point to prove to themselves and the rest of the league. As with last week, there was a large contingent of travelling support who were anticipating the game as much as the players.
A high, hanging kick-off from Kings got the game started, and immediately put the hosts under pressure. Jamie Thomas made the incisive drive that got him into the opposition 22, where a shrill blast of the referee’s whistle signalled that this was more than the Exiles could cope with. Kings’ reward was a simple penalty in front of the posts, which fly-half Paul Crocker duly converted to give Kings a 0-3 lead with barely three minutes on the clock.
The restart from Exiles saw them get both possession and field position, from which they began a series of tight drives that continued to make hard yards. The visitors’ youngsters did well to slow down the advancing pack – Connor Canney, George Elsbey and Tony Smollett all putting their bodies on the line for the cause. Exiles then spun it wide, hoping that their backs would finish things off. The Kings centre pairing of Shane Rees and Pete Crompton were on the case though and their defensive line speed made sure that their opposite numbers fluffed their lines giving Kings a scrum just inside their half. The Exiles tight five now stepped up to the mark and proceeded to march the Kings scrum back, earning a penalty for their efforts. They kicked for position and found their game plan: a solid driving maul, attacking round the fringes, before going wide. Their outside men hit the gas and made it through the Kings defence for a converted try: 8-3 to Exiles.
The score stung Kings into action. Another hanging kick-off coupled with forward pressure meant Kings got possession and worked their way into Exiles territory, courtesy of the second row pairing of Mark Waudby and Tom Kendrick. As the ball was recycled, flanker Chris Minot went thundering towards the line, and with three defenders hanging off him, he stretched out to touch the ball down just over a line. Minot looked up expectantly at the referee, much like a small boy on Christmas day asking father if he can open his present. And nothing happened, but that’s how it goes when you attempt to score on the five yard line. Exiles were quickest to react as half their pack jumped on Minot and the ball. As they sought to clear their lines though, the live-wire Sam Back was on them like a shot. He quickly stripped.......(no, not that sort of strip) the ball from Exiles and touched down over the real try-line. The conversion went wide, but Kings were back in it at 7-8.
Just as Kings thought this gave them the platform to build on, Exiles stepped up a gear and were able to dictate play with the forward-orientated game. Their driving tactics were sucking in too many defenders and inevitably it left Kings exposed, leading to two tries for the hosts in rapid succession. The first came out wide and the second from a cheeky dart down an unguarded blind side. Fortunately for Kings, neither try was converted, but that narrow 7-8 margin was suddenly 17-8. Kings were now on the ropes, but held firm for the final few minutes of the half and had much needed respite at half-time.
Indeed, Kings were able to regroup and come out of the blocks snarling for the second half. Where the wind had very much been in Exiles’ sails at the end of the first forty, Kings were straight on the offensive. Shane Rees, Mike Smaylen and Karl Ford combined well to go down the left flank and into the opposition 22. From there scrum-half Dan Thomas got his forwards in on the act, and it was the replacements Chris Hands and Jay Rawlings who kept the momentum going. It was too much for the defending Exiles. They conceded a penalty which Paul Crocker converted into three points, nudging that 17-8 deficit to 17-11.
For twenty minutes, neither side was giving an inch. Hard, combative rugby was being played up front, coupled with both sets of backs having a crack of the whip. Breaks were made on both sides, but the respective defences just managed to keep each other in check. The tension eventually spilled over, leading to both Mark Waudby and the Exiles tight-head receiving yellow cards for some handbags (Waudby) and expletives (the prop). The 14 man game appeared to suit Kings better as they started to get the upper hand. With the wind to their backs, Kings made full use of their suite of kicking options to keep the Exiles pegged back in their half. The line-out too was starting to fire as time and again Jay Rawlings found Tom Kendrick, giving good clean possession for Kings. Shane Rees took the ball up and fed Pete Crompton who got behind the Exiles defence. The forwards came rumbling next and Chris Hands and number 8 Sam Back went clean through to see Kings pile on the pressure on the opposition 5 yard line. To their credit, Exiles were hanging in there, despite the powerful thrusts of Dan Thomas, Jamie Thomas and Tony Smollett, but drive by drive, their defence was thinning out. Finally the ball came out to the quick hands of the backs. Shane Rees fed Mike Smaylen who skipped round the last man and went in for a well-deserved try. Crocker’s conversion went wide, but Kings were now just one point adrift at 17-16. There was a real sense that the game was anybody’s.
Exiles were in no mood to let the game slip and as the minutes ticked by, they found themselves on the Kings 22 and it was clear that’s where they wanted to stay, but it was that man Sam Back again. He’d been a thorn in everybody’s side all day, and it was his hard work that yielded the penalty Kings needed. The referee confirmed that Kings had time for the touch-finder and following line-out. It was now or never for the Kings men. Tom Kendrick and Jay Rawlings did their business in the line-out and suddenly the whole team was swarming into the opposition. Exiles were conceding penalties and series of quick taps took Kings up to the Exiles 10 metre line, where again a penalty was conceded. With no time on the clock, Captain Crocker opted for the shot at goal and stepped up for a potentially match-winning kick. Hearts were in mouths amongst all 30 players on the field, the referee and each side’s supporter. The ball was well struck, it had the legs, but ghosted wide of the left post. Exiles were delighted, Kings were downcast, but all on the touchline had been treated to a game of end-to-end rugby that went down to the wire.
Kings were sanguine in defeat, knowing that Exiles had been tested to the max, and for their own part, the Kings men know that their is still more to come from this squad. Roll-on next week’s game, away to Stourbridge Lions in the merit league.