Jersey boys prove that size matters as OEs get down to pre-season business.
With brutal conditioning sessions already well under way under the watchful eye of strength and conditioning coach Nick McBride, the club’s pre-season began in earnest with a run-out against old friends Bury St Edmunds.
Elthamians emerged comfortable 62-19 winners on aggregate in 4 x 30 minute games against the National Two South club, but with 50 players - including 10 new signings - used in four different starting line-ups, the matches raised as many questions as answers regarding selection.
In a break from tradition, Elthamians switched their traditional August pre-season training camp from Ireland to the rather sunnier climes of Jersey and two tough games against the Island’s Championship club who had just come off a fifth placed campaign in tier two the previous season.
A tall order then for OEs and a real examination of their promotion credentials as Gavin Lach admitted. “We have a big squad and the two Jersey games are a tremendous opportunity for players to show what they can do and stake a claim for that first team shirt,” he said.
“When you consider they played Harlequins, had a contested training session with Gloucester and now are playing Old Elthamians in the same week, it’s a real privilege and shows how far we have come as a club.”
As OEs were to discover to their cost, if they have aspirations of playing in the Championship in the future, then size really does matter.
Jersey Reds, boasting one of the biggest front rows Elthamians will have ever faced - and it wasn’t even their first string - overpowered the battling Old Boys, scoring five tries to one with an impressive display of strength up front.
But Elthamians stuck to their task admirably throughout and were outstanding in defence. The back row of George Messum, Harry Ledger and captain for the day Ben King, worked tirelessly at the breakdown, scrum-half Ollie Claxton did his best to get the visitors on the front foot, sniping around the fringes, and when the game began to break up after the break, OEs showed glimpses of what they are capable of with the ball in hand.
In the first game of the day, the Extra 1sts produced an impressive performance of running rugby to beat Jersey Reds Athletic 33-19 and claim their first Zoo League One victory of the new campaign.
“I am very pleased with the way the entire weekend went,” Lach said. “It was exactly the sort of bruising challenge we needed. I said beforehand the result was irrelevant, it was all about the performance and if you take away the size of the Jersey pack, who put us under a lot of pressure particularly in the set-piece, I thought we matched them in most other areas. In fact, I thought we coped a lot better than perhaps we expected to beforehand.
"From start to finish, I thought the attitude of all the players was exceptional both in training and in the games - I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The only dampener on an instructive weekend were the injuries to new signings Dylan Flashman and Nathan Thomas. Flashman, the industrious former Wimbledon skipper and lock who had proved an impressive and popular addition to the squad in pre-season, suffered a serious torn hamstring and was ruled out for the rest of the season, while exciting England Under-20s No.8 Thomas dislocated a shoulder during the Extras victory and was sidelined until Christmas.
Back home, OEs Women stepped up their preparations ahead of their debut in Championship 2 South, with a special coaching session run by England star Vicky Fleetwood at College Meadow.
It was a massive coup for the club to secure the services of the multi-talented, 65-times capped hooker who was an integral part of England’s 2014 World Cup-winning side in France.
Catherine Spencer believed Fleetwood’s guest session could only have a positive effect on her squad. “I was delighted that Vicky shared some of her valuable knowledge with the team,” she said. “Vicky has a wealth of experience of both the 7’s and 15’s game and we were really lucky to be able to tap into some of that
“We have been trying really hard to offer different experiences to the team as we continue to build; Graham Smith (World Cup winning coach) visited College Meadow last year and Vicky added to that momentum. I am hoping that we can take inspiration from this as we move in to the Championship SE league.”
Updated 17:30 - 2 Jan 2019 by Jon Edwards