Cornish Go Down All Guns Blazing!
Sevenoaks repel colossal Cornish comeback to claim promotion prize.
The comeback kings of London rugby finally left themselves too much to do when it mattered most, despite producing another magnificent response to almost retrieve a seemingly lost cause as London Cornish went down all guns blazing in the Play Off for promotion to London 1 South at Sevenoaks on Saturday. The final score of 37-31 does not do justice to a magnificent match in which both sides and the 3 match officials played their full part at the Kent sides Knowle HQ.
Cornish arrived at the ground to find the main pitch all set up…for cricket, Oaks having to cede priority on the facility overlooked by their clubhouse to the 11 a side game. With the back up pitch similarly claimed, the match was to be played on the training pitch, not much larger than a schools pitch and every bit as narrow. Despite the recent rain, this pitch was bone hard, and in parts had no grass on it at all, though it had hosted a league match the previous week.
The visitors kicked off playing up the significant slope and into a significant breeze, and they took an early lead when Josh Allison landed a penalty following a typical Tom Jeffery rumbustious carry. Sevenoaks levelled on 5 with a penalty given for not releasing the tackled player, and shortly afterward scored their first try when a lineout malfunction, coupled with centre Chris Smart
pulling a hamstring, saw the home side crash over for an unconverted try. Smart was replaced by Luke Spells, but he was unable to stem the tide, for on 14 minutes a missed tackle in midfield saw the home lock canter over by the posts for a converted try. The frequent failure by Cornish to secure their own lineout ball provided a steady stream of additional set piece ball to an already fired up Sevenoaks, and even when good field position was gained, it was quickly given up at the lineout. Cornish suffered in a similar vein in last seasons Play Off, and had prepared contingency plans to counter the threat, but even these require an element of execution and unusually this was lacking across the lineout. When another lineout failure saw the Kent side send their right wing away for a converted try on 21 minutes, the visitors were already 22-3 down and staring down the barrel. In a planned move, Cornish replaced Oli Low with Mark O’Leary up front, though this was unlikely to have any effect on the lineout. On both 16 and 24 minutes Cornish kicked penalties to 5 metres out but lost both lineouts to cede territory. Another Jeffery run on 28 produced the chance for Allison to reduce the arrears to 22-6 but 3 minutes later disaster was to strike. Will Carew-Gibbs pinched the first of 3 strikes against the head but when the ball was lost on the floor following an exchange of kicks, Sevenoaks chipped on the wind for the ball to bounce obliquely away from the cover and straight into the arms of their onrushing wing to scamper away for another converted try. Matt Johnson took a blow to the rubs in this action and was replaced at 6 by Matt Hakes. With time running out on the half, Oaks manufactured more great field position, but first Skip Dave Theobald
pinched their lineout and then Craig Chatley
made a break that forced the home side to concede a third kickable penalty, landed by Allison to leave the half-time score 29-9 to Sevenoaks.
On the balance of what had gone before, most of the sizeable crowd watching the match would not have been wondering who would win the match, but by how much Sevenoaks would win it. However, students of these match reports would have noted that, with alarming regularity right from the first game of the season, Cornish have been exponents of 2nd half comebacks all season long, more often than not landing the spoils. Both sides had begun the second period on team warnings for repeated offences, and Sevenoaks lost a man to the bin on 43, only for Allison’s penalty kick to slam into an upright and be cleared. With scrum half Ed Atkin and Osei-Tutu increasing influences, Sevenoaks began to concede a stream of penalties, 5 in the opening 8 minutes of the half. On 48, Carew-Gibbs hit Ben Ievers
10 out down the left flank at a lineout, and Cornish finally managed to set an unstoppable maul, O’Leary the man on the spot with the touchdown and Allison adding the extras. Galvanised not just by this score, but by the tremendous volume of the revitalised Cornish support, the visitors suddenly looked a completely different team. With a series of steals against the head in the tight, and their lineout starting to click, it was now the exiles who could rely on more than their fair share of possession, though they were hampered by losing top try scorer Jeffery to a further hamstring pull on 52, Johnson returning at 6 to allow Hakes onto the wing. On 58 minutes Cornish won another penalty, and fly half Phil Dale launched a superb kick to 5 out down the right hand side. Tom Ievers won the lineout, and when Pete Calvert drove to 5 out, Atkin worked the ball to Mark Osei-Tutu at his arm. The powerful no 8 drove through a tackle and then twisted out of 2 more to show a great sleight of hand in planting the ball down for the try as he was driven out, the Touch Judge in a great position to give the score, and Allison producing a sublime kick to add the extras. 29-6 a few minutes before half-time had become 29-23 and the sound of the Oaks skipper berating his players would have further encouraged the visitors. Within 2 minutes, his worst fears were brought home to roost, an Atkin garryowen from just inside his own half plucked out of the air by Tom Ievers above the onrushing wing. Seizing his chance, the open side fended off the covering centre before his turn of pace left the full back for dead as he sprinted over in front of the massed ranks of the delirious Cornish support to reduce the deficit to a single point, though agonisingly the conversion attempt flew wide. The next score would be crucial in the outcome of the match and both sides knew it, Oaks bringing on more experience from their bench to try and stem the flow. The home side missed a long range penalty on 64, but quickly made amends with their first real attack of the half when they worked room wide right for one of their locks to reach out and plant the ball on the line for a critical, but unconverted score. Twice Cornish were pinged at scrums in decent field position in these closing minutes, once for a knock on and once for an early shove, and the Sevenoaks kicker didn’t need a second invitation when he was invited to atone for his earlier miss, landing a penalty that seemed to make the game safe at 37-28 on 72 minutes, Cornish bringing on Tim Homan
for Carew-Gibbs at about this time. With Hakes and Stefan Duda now darting around the fringes in an attempt to break clear and show their undoubted wheels, Cornish knew they could still score quickly if needed, so when they won a penalty with time nearly up inside their own half, Theobald elected for the kick to reduce the arrears to one score. Allison, whose kicking style sees him drive through the ball on a low trajectory, stepped up and launched a howitzer of an effort, just making it over the bar to huge cheers from the visiting support. Now Sevenoaks would have to weather one final assault to claim their prize. Hakes claimed the restart and combined with Homan to drive upfield, but after a series of phases the ball was spilt for an ecstatic home side to begin their celebrations, them home by 37-31.
Sevenoaks were gracious and generous hosts pre and post match, and they deserve their day in the sun, not just for their prodigious 1st half, but also for having the ability to claim that crucial try against the run of play in the 2nd period. They are a well balanced side, and will aim to add some depth to their squad in time for the new season in London 1 South. We wish them well and hope we will see them there in 2017-18.
With news filtering through of last gasp wins for Barnstaple at Tonbridge Judds in the Nat 2 South promotion Play Off, and for Guildford at Tring in the National 3 London version, there were more galling ways to lose than the exiles did on this occasion. They say madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, so Cornish can take some consolation from the fact that they have closed the gap compared with last season despite labouring under the same infrastructure. Recognising the shortcomings of the existing infrastructure despite the efforts of the team in the last 2 season, the Committee have already instigated plans to change the training venue to one with a 4g surface, upgrade the home pitches and pitch options with significant investment over the summer, secure a home for the post match events at the club and not in a pub, and enhance the coaching team to provide the players with more technical nouse. Be certain of one thing, the desire to progress to London 1 at LCRFC has only been reinforced by this defeat, and planning for next season has already begun!