A new season, new faces and OEs on a sticky wicket
The start of another eagerly anticipated new season saw Elthamians become embroiled in a row, entirely not of their own making, before a tackle had even been made in anger.
OEs were due to travel to Clifton Lane to take on newly relegated Rotherham Titans in the season opener. Except no one had told Rotherham Town Cricket Club, co-tenants of Clifton Lane, who were due to play a crucial relegation decider at home to Rockingham Colliery the same day.
With neither Rotherham side prepared to back down and Elthamians unable to switch the match to College Meadow, ironically because of cricket commitments, a row raged on in the days leading up to the game.
In the end the Titans enforced a clause in a contract that was signed by both rugby and cricket clubs in December 2015, relating to set dates for which team has priority of the venue.
Cricket club committee member Ron Wood told The Yorkshire Post that the Titans had employed security personnel at the ground. “They (Titans) have effectively closed the ground by getting in security,” he said. “I’d expect the umpires will turn up on Saturday and just call it off – what else can they do? It’s just a shame that we couldn’t be accommodated.”
A bemused Gavin Lach admitted: “I thought I’d seen pretty much everything on a rugby field, but at one stage I thought I was going to have to duck flying cricket balls behind my back while watching us play.”
After the off-field distractions, it was down to business on the pitch and OEs hooker Nathan Morris, one of the few members of the squad to have played at Clifton Lane, warned his team-mates what to expect. “Clifton Lane is a very difficult place to get a result from,” he said. “The pitch is narrow and there is a very partisan crowd ready to comment on your every mistake. I always remember the Rotherham pack using the hill to their advantage and coming around the corner hard. If we want to get a result we will have to stand up and be counted up front.”
As it turned out, a rip-roaring, end-to-end contest played in energy-sapping heat and on a bone-hard surface went right to the wire before Elthamians emerged, battered and bruised, at the end of a staggering 15-minutes of added time with a bonus point 34-33 victory.
But they had to see off a dramatic late Rotherham fightback as the Titans scored two tries in the closing minutes while Elthamians were forced into a major reshuffle out wide after losing backs Bryan Hotston, Dom Lespierre, Kieran Moffat and Max Wilkins to injury.
“I thought the boys were absolutely outstanding, I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Lach said afterwards. “We knew Rotherham was going to be as difficult as anything we will face this season. We had talked all week about standing up to the physical challenge and I thought we did that exceptionally well.”
The following week in a relatively low key South London derby, Elthamians made it two wins out of two with a clinical performance at Well Hall to beat Blackheath 21-10.
Head coach Sam Howard had promised a more pragmatic, structured Elthamians side this season and this was evident thoughout a fast and furious, and occasionally fractious, encounter.
It was even more evident a week later in Elthamians’ long awaited first home game of the season at College Meadow against an unbeaten Darlington Mowden Park side.
Suffocating defence stifled the life out of Darlington as an attacking force, and with a dominant scrum which caused the visiting eight no end of problems, OEs were thoroughly good value for their 31-22 victory.
One man who wasn’t entirely convinced, however, was Sam Howard who insisted there was still plenty of room for improvement ahead of Elthamians’ trip to his former club Rosslyn Park.
“The second half performance was one of the worst with the ball since I’ve been at the club,” he said. “We didn’t put three phases together once or exert any sort of possession pressure and continually gifted the ball back to DMP.
“On the flip side, the defence was the best I’ve ever seen - the organisation, structure, desire and discipline were exceptional. We must match that again this week but add in our attacking game which maybe we take for granted. We have to work just as hard in attack as we do in defence.”
Howard’s fears were realised a week later in rain-lashed West London as OEs’ winning start came to a soggy end against Rosslyn Park.
The Old Boys never recovered from a disastrous opening quarter which saw them go 20-0 behind and although they fought back bravely in the second half, the 37-24 victory did not flatter the home side.
“We haven't clicked with the ball in hand yet,” Howard admitted afterwards. “We are not working hard enough off the ball to get deep and run straight. Also our basic passing, catching and kicking skills are letting us down. In terms of simple silly errors last Saturday, we were poor as a backline.”
An eventful first month of the new National One campaign ended in thrilling fashion as Elthamians bounced back with a 38-27 victory over Birmingham Moseley.
It’s safe to say games between the two sides are never dull. The two fixtures last season served up 18 tries and 124 points. And a pulsating, end-to-end encounter fully lived up to expectations as Ben King and Tom White scored two tries apiece in a nine-try thriller at College Meadow.
It was a promising start to the new campaign for the club’s senior sides. The Extra 1st XV got off to a flyer in Zoo One with three emphatic wins over Wimbledon (62-14), Rams (35-21) Jersey (61-19), while the fledgling Development XV, fresh from a comprehensive 61-12 demolition of Old Dunstonians in their only warm-up fixture, were given a tough baptism in their first Kent Invicta League contest, going down 29-12 to a strong Canterbury 2nds.
However they roared back with impressive victories over Westcombe Park and Sevenoaks.
For England Counties Under-20s winger and one of the four beneficiaries of the rugby scholarship scheme at St Mary’s, Aaron Grandidier, it was a dream start to his senior rugby career. He scored five tries in the 41-23 win over Combe and then followed it up two weeks later with a hat-trick in the Extras' victory over Jersey that sent them to the top of Zoo One.
The Bulls, fresh from a 61-7 win over Westcombe Park 3rds in a friendly at the start of the month, got their Kent Premier West campaign off to a winning start with a close fought 12-7 victory over Dartfordian Angels.
OEs Women began life at a higher level with an immediate re-match against Medway Ladies, the side who had beaten them by just one point in the Play-off final in April. Catherine Spencer’s side were quick to shown there was no lingering after-effects from that defeat. Medway were efficiently dispatched 39-21 and OEs ended September with a 36-7 thumping of Chesham Ladies.
Updated 08:52 - 3 Jan 2019 by Jon Edwards