Medway End Cornish Dreams...For Now!
London Cornish’s promotion hopes were ended as an impressive Medway side claimed the spoils in the London Two South Promotion Play-Off.
The Kent side were superb hosts and not just because of their pre-match meal of pasties, scones, clotted cream and strawberries!
Cornish selected a strong squad for the game, with Jackson Szabo returning in the centres having recovered from injury against Tottonians. Tom Baker was also back at fly-half, with Mark Osei-Tutu making a welcome comeback on the bench. The team were buoyed by a large number of travelling support – some coming from Penzance, Saltash and even a group of Cornish Pirates supporters choosing to come across to support London Cornish rather than their planned trip to Headingly to see their team play Yorkshire Carnegie! For this, we thank them wholeheartedly, as we also do Trelawny’s Army, and ‘Kernow In The City’ for helping to spread the word and the call to the Cornish arms!
‘The Exiles’ kicked off in front of a huge crowd bathed in bright sunshine. The pitch was very hard, but Cornish had the benefit of a strong breeze behind them in the first half. However, it became immediately apparent that two traditionally strong facets of the Cornish game – scrum and line-out – would be up against it in a way they had never been previously this season. Medway were a powerful side with a good pack, and an eye catching pair of wingers and South Sea Islander centres. Indeed, the Kent side stole the first three line-outs that Cornish gained, and went on to dominate this part of the game. Allied with some excellent work at the rucks and impressive defence to nullify Cornish’s pacey centres, Medway were too good on the day.
The home side built some early pressure with Eanna Flannagan combining well James Rutherford, before they played in pacy winger Dan Hamilton, who was quite magnificently dumped into touch by a fired up Saltash speedster Rich Skinnard. Cornish re-grouped well and earned the game’s first chance of points as Medway were penalised for holding on. Josh Allison stepped up and dissected the posts after seven minutes to the loudest cheer heard at a London Cornish game for quite some time! From the re-start, the Black and Golds won another penalty, which they kicked to touch. A rare line-out win set up a move between Chris Anstey, Rob Healey and Ben Ievers but the home defence snaffled up the danger. Medway used this as the foundation to build their first score of the afternoon as scrum-half James Dance combined with Daniel Harvey. Harvey fed centre Fred Tila who bulldozed his way through until the ball worked loose and Cornish kicked clear, but the referee pulled play back for an earlier infringement and awarded the home side a penalty which they kicked to touch. Harvey combined with his other Pacific Islander centre Leo Luia’ana who could only be stopped with the concession of another penalty which Harvey kicked after 15 minutes.
Once more, Cornish responded to adversity well, and within three minutes had re-established their lead. Ben Devonport fed Mike Bond who played in Will Carew-Gibbs, a trademark pacy run was stopped illegally, and Allison stepped up to put Cornish back in front at 6-3 with 18 minutes played.
As the half wore on, Medway gradually assumed more of the possession. Following a promising interplay between Healy, Szabo and Carew-Gibbs, the Kent side won turn-over ball, and on the back of this a penalty. This was kicked to touch, around 8 metres from the Cornish line. The line-out was taken cleanly, and all the home side’s Tom Beaumont had to do was dive over the line for the first try of the afternoon. Daniel Harvey added the extras, and Medway led 10-6.
Yet again, Cornish hit back within minutes of conceding a score, as a Medway clearance kick found its way straight to Josh Allison, who went on a run which was stopped by the concession of a penalty by the home side. ‘The Exiles’ full-back stepped up and kicked his third successful penalty of the afternoon, and there was just one point in it after 29 minutes.
Cornish were then hit by two injuries in the number eight position in quick succession, as Ben Devonport had to be helped off the pitch. His replacement Mark Osei-Tutu didn’t last long before having to temporarily leave the field for a blood injury. This disruption in the back row didn’t help matters, and crucially, Medway took advantage. Try-scorer Tom Beaumont went on a great run, before finding Fred Tila. Once more, he could only be stopped by illegal means, and up stepped Harvey to restore Medway’s four point lead.
Back came Cornish, and the deficit was cut back to a single point within minutes as the hosts were pinged for offside, and Allison kicked his fourth from four. ‘The Exiles’ could even have gone in at half-time in front, when Medway were penalised in their ‘22’ just before the interval for holding on. However, the ball wobbled in the tee just as Allison’s boot was about to strike it, which sent it to the left of the upright slightly. The whistle went with Medway 13-12 ahead.
The start to the second half would be crucial to Cornish’s chances – Medway would now have the wind advantage and the visitors needed to make amends in the line-out. It was the black and golds who started better as Osei-Tutu, back on following the temporary mopping up of blood, combined brilliantly with Falmouth flyer Robin Heymann, but the Kent side pushed the Cornish winger into touch. Jackson Szabo got a rare opportunity to show his searing pace shortly afterwards, as he launched a scything run before offloading to Bond. He combined with Chatley who was halted, but the referee awarded a penalty in Cornish’s favour, unfortunately, Allison’s kick missed.
Medway saw their chance now and launched repeated raids on the Exiles’ ‘22’. Luia’ana and Bennison were both repelled by strong Cornish defence, who turned the screw, won the penalty and cleared. Just before the 50 minute mark, Cornish made their second permanent change as Matt Hakes replaced Josh Allison. Immediately he got into the game and involved in a great move as Osei-Tutu used his pace and power to hit the Medway defence with Carew-Gibbs, but the ball was eventually lost. Back came the home side, and they began a period of almost twenty minutes of continual pressure on the Cornish defence. Several times they drove for the line, and they were stopped, but on two successive occasions they were awarded penalties, which they tapped to keep the pressure on. At the third penalty concession, referee Mr. Odell ran between the posts, to award Medway a penalty try, with Harvey adding the extras to extend the home side’s lead to 21-12 after 56 minutes.
At this point, Cornish heads could have gone down, but they stuck manfully to their task and gained another opening just two minutes later. A great run from Mark Osei-Tutu saw the number eight dumped to the ground, which resulted in the tackler being shown a yellow card. Cornish kicked the resulting penalty to touch, and Ievers claimed the line-out, but Medway mauled strongly, won turn-over ball and gained a penalty of their own.
The game moved into the last quarter, and Tom Lloyd came on for Mike Bond. Medway were still in the ascendency, but it was the visitors who gained the next opportunity. A line-out 5m out from the Medway line saw Somers secure the ball, Osei-Tutu, Ievers and Somers all drove for the line, but the Kent side defended superbly, and to huge cheers gained a penalty and cleared the danger. Buoyed by this excellent effort, Medway made another powerful charge though the centres, which could only be stopped by the concession of a penalty. Harvey kept his 100% record intact with his sixth kick of the afternoon, and it was now 26-12.
The remaining 10 minutes saw Cornish permanently on the front foot and spending the vast majority of this time in the Medway ‘22’. Heymann recycled a ball brilliantly to Carew-Gibbs, who found Joe Skinnard, on as the final replacement. He launched a cross kick which was just slightly too strong. Cornish kept the pressure up, and by now Medway were conceding penalties back to back, which resulted in a forward being sin-binned. Yet try as Cornish might, and they tried incredibly hard, they could not breakthrough the red and yellow wall of defence, and Medway kept their line intact, and indeed added another score, courtesy of the excellent Harvey to take a well-deserved 29-12 victory, and with it, promotion to London One South.
For Cornish, there is obvious immediate disappointment, but it should not be forgotten that this was the most successful season in the club’s history. Director of Rugby Dickon Moon commented after the game: “We have achieved our pre-season goal of topping our previous best ever finish in the league structure, and what this defeat tells us is that we are not quite ready for the step up despite winning 29 of our last 34 games at this level. Medway were able to nullify our chief threats in the set piece, and though we defended magnificently, the level of aggression they brought to the breakdown made it tough for us to create quick, clean ball. Sinners and I were delighted with the way we finished the game, and for the last 10 minutes we showed real spirit given the game had all but gone. We all agreed post match that this is the beginning for us - while we wish Medway well (and what a welcoming and decent rugby club they are) at the level above, we will have a short post season break before focussing on next season. The target now has to be to win the league."
London Two South-West will provide new challenges and new faces next season, with potential new opposition including the likes of Cobham, Basingstoke (who were a National Three side in 2013/14), Andover and a local derby against Barnes based London Exiles. Everyone at the club has certainly earned their close season break, but it won’t be long before all eyes focus in on 2015/16!