Cornish continue their steady recovery.
Despite being under the cosh for large parts of the 2nd half of this London 2 South-West match at the Hampshire Avenue HQ of their hosts Bognor, London Cornish eventually emerged victorious by a goal and 2 tries to a try and a penalty, the result ensuring the Sussex side will finish the season bottom of the division. The scoreline does not reflect the full story however, for the home side created plenty of half chances but were only able to finish one, whereas their visitors created half a dozen such chances and finished 3 of them.
The exiles were forced into a series of changes for this match, unable to field regulars Mike Bond, Will Carew-Gibbs, Simon Brading, Rich McKeown, Iain Short, Ian Keith, Tom Dorse and Nick Harlock for a variety of reasons. The upshot of the many changes was that there was a first starts of the season for Alex Soskin in his part-time role as emergency hooker, and for new signing Liam McConnell at full back. On the bench there was a call up for Choughs regular prop Matt Pollard, both 2s regular props having become dads in the same week! With George Johnson playing at loosehead, and Fraser Smeaton called up at 12, there was an unfamiliar look to the side for seasoned watchers. However, since all of those called up have been playing 2s and Choughs rugby this season, the habit of winning was a welcome one to bring to the side.
Cornish arrived at the Bognor ground slightly later than planned, a crash on the A3 blocking 2 lanes and holding the bus up for 45 minutes. The weather continues to be unseasonably sunny and warm, though the pitch was in decent nick and the grass shorter than visits on previous occasions. Cornish were well aware that the home 10 had recovered from recent injuries, and that their side had been bolstered by the return of a few of their student members, recent results including a comprehensive win over 3rd placed Guildford. However, Bognor have already been relegated so the exiles were not quite sure what to expect from their hosts!
Cornish played away from the clubhouse end in the first half, and quickly demonstrated that one aspect of their game remains in fine fettle, the scrum driving Bognor off their own ball at the first set piece inside the visitors 22. The Sussex side came out firing and were soon back on the attack, them winning a penalty smack in front of the posts on 3 minutes inside the 22, but everyone watching was as surprised as the home kicker to see the kick pushed wide. This profligacy came back to haunt the home side on 6 minutes, for on their very first attack Cornish scored. Scrum half Tom Jacob angled across field from a ruck and delayed his pass perfectly before hitting centre Luke Spells on a crash ball. The former Worthing centre is finishing the season in great form, and he smashed through the defence just inside the Bognor half and floated a fine pass left to right to wing Stuart Bell arriving at pace. Bell still had plenty to do, but he rounded his opposite number and fended off the covering full back to dive across the line wide right, the conversion missing left but the exiles 5-0 to the good. This move and the few others that followed, were isolated moments of quality in a match that lacked it, though Spells was again at the forefront of the action on 11 minutes when he again made a half break and again linked with Bell only for the ball to be knocked on as the wing tried to cross the line. 4 minutes later Cornish scored again, Fraser Smeaton smashing the ball up at 12 into the home 22, and Jacob showing a going, his pace around the fringe taking him away from the cover and under the posts for a try converted by Spells. At 12-0 with so long in the game to go, the decent home support must have been thinking the worst, but their team responded superbly from this point on and can feel hard done by to have taken nothing from the match. Using a mix of wonderfully flighted kicks to push their visitors back, and long cut out passes slung from the 10 channel, Bognor sought to move Cornish around the pitch and keep them penned deep. They then planned to attack the visiting lineout, with little success early on but with increased success in the second period. Their problem is that their handling is not as cute as their gameplan, and too often chances were butchered by knock-ons and passes going behind their intended receiver. Having attacked for 5 minutes, Bognor were cut apart again on 22 minutes, Bell linking with Graeme Smeaton and Robin Heymann down the left wing before an inside pass was intercepted by a covering home player to be cleared. Two minutes later the home kicker found his range from point blank following a ruck offence, reducing the arrears to 9. Back came the Sussex side five minutes later, but again they spilled the ball and Fraser Smeaton was quick to respond, breaking upfield and supported by lock Pete Calvert, him popping the ball to Spells who fixed the last man and chipped ahead only for Bell to agonizingly knock the ball on when challenged on the try line. The Bognor 10 continued to drive angled kicks into the clubhouse corner for the next 10 minutes, Johnson repeatedly hitting Calvert, Tom Stock and Andrew Preston to ensure lines were cleared each time, though on occasions loose kick chasing meant the visitors were back where they began. On 30 Cornish again attacked blind, this time Jacob and Graeme Smeaton linking to send Heymann on his way, only for play to be called back for a forward pass. On 33 minutes a Cornish hand was spotted scooping a ball back at a scrum inside the 22, but the home 10 again missed a kick he would normally expect to nail. Both sides went through a period of knocking the ball on in the closing minutes of the half, though it was noticeable that at successive rucks Bognor players required treatment for a series of injuries, and since your correspondent was also covering as physio in the absence of the regular cover, he missed whether any of those players was replaced or not?! The whistle went at the break with the game in the balance, Cornish 12-3 up.
The exiles were forced into a change at half time, Mark Osei-Tutu clearly not having recovered from the ankle injury he suffered a couple of weeks back, Pollard on at loosehead, Johnson moving to hooker and Soskin reverting to no 8. Any plans Bognor had of starting the half sharply were blown away in the opening 60 seconds of the second period. Spells stole a ball on the floor just inside his own half and headed blind. He offloaded to Heymann, who stepped one man and sent a sharp pass right to left to McConnell arriving on his outside. Hitherto denied space and time in which to run by the fine kicking game of the home 10, the former Loughborough Student hit the turbos, bursting the first attempted tackle and handing off the next before gliding away from the cover to score wide left, the speed and power of the try leaving few in doubt that the lad will be some asset to Cornish in seasons to come. Though the kick was missed, the visitors were now 17-3 ahead. With Spells, Preston and Johnson winning a few on the floor, this opening few minutes of the half were harrowing ones for Bognor, but they continued to counter at speed, the Cornish backs working overtime to stem the flow. The Sussex side had demonstrated that they have runners capable of clean line breaks of their own, and on 51 their elusive centre arced his run perfectly to elude a tackle, and though a scrambling McConnell tackle aided by Bell downed the runner, it only took a few phases for a home forward to plunge through a tackle and plant the ball on the line, the referee taking a moment before deciding to award the try, the conversion attempt flying across the face of the posts but the crowd awakened and battle now truly joined. Increasing their tempo and aided by a misfiring visiting lineout, Bognor now dominated possession, their 9 looping round on 55 only to see his pass knocked on when in a good position out wide. A pattern emerged of the exiles gifting possession to their hosts, who knocked the ball on to give it back only to themselves get it back as the quality of the game deteriorated. It took some strong scrummaging from Skipper Dave Theobald, playing in front of his folks for the first time in Cornish colours, Johnson and Pollard to ensure enough good quality ball made it back for their side to clear their lines, and when Cornish did win penalties they were aided by the additional benefit of the huge McConnell boot, the like of which we will also enjoy seeing in the final couple of games! Cornish brought off Fraser Smeaton on 61, Phil Francis returning to action in his place. Within minutes, a switch play saw the exiles create a half chance wide right but in keeping with play in this second half, a harmless pass simply flew straight into touch way behind its intended recipient. Jacob very nearly added the bonus point score on 65 when he countered following a Chris Turner steal on the floor, chipped the last man and then knocked on in the act of gathering the ball with clear water in front of him inside the Bognor 22. Though scrappy in these closing minutes, Bognor continued to attack, throwing the ball from one side of the pitch to the other to try and break the shackles of the exiles d, the home side belying any concern their supporters may have had that they have given up on their season. Cornish gave Alex Clough a run for Calvert on 67, and he was soon required in defensive duty as Bognor drove the visitors back into their 22. Time after time they hammered away now, Stock, Preston, Theobald and Johnson joined in the high tackle count by Spells, seemingly relishing the close quarter action. On 75 minutes their 10 hoisted a huge up and under into the sun inside the Cornish 22, but it was expertly fielded by Heymann to claim the mark. His clearance was his last act of the match as his nose had been badly cut in the previous affray and without a physio the exiles were unable to patch him up to return, Fraser Smeaton recalled from the bench to complete the match. Try as they might in the closing minutes, Bognor could not gain the score their efforts really deserved, and with Cornish also not looking like they had any more to give, the whistle brought down the league season at Hampshire Avenue, the Sussex side only having away games remaining.
So Bognor leave us after a 4 season stay in London 2 South-West. They have been both great visitors and great hosts, and will be sorely missed for their good humour and for the camaraderie that has built up between the clubs over that time. They have demonstrated that they have the talent to test sides in all sorts of ways, and were very unlucky not to pick up at least a point from this match. We wish them well in their efforts to return.
Cornish will have mixed feelings about this result, pleased to have toughed out the win but disappointed not to have done so with a bonus point having scored 3 tries 42 minutes into the game. However, this was the exiles last away trip of the season, and with the goal of securing a highest ever league finish of 4th still within their sights, those 2 games retain real significance!