Thrills, spills and derby day drama to round off a year to remember
And so to the final month of a year which began in relatively low key fashion but ended in incident-packed drama and excitement as Elthamians saw out 2018 sitting proudly on top of National One.
OEs started the important run-up to Christmas in some style at College Meadow with arguably their best performance of the season so far to record an emphatic five-try 34-7 victory over Caldy.
It was Elthamians' biggest winning margin of the campaign and they were thoroughly good value for the bonus point victory which extended their unbeaten run in National One to seven games.
“We defended magnificently, our attack was precise and threatening, our discipline was excellent, our kicking game was good and most importantly we did it all for 80 minutes,” enthused Sam Howard. “It was probably our most complete performance of the year.”
Howard wanted more of the same the following week when Elthamians made the challenging trip to the Forest of Dean to take on Cinderford.
“I know it’s a cliche but Cinderford is a very tough place to get a result from,” he said. “I think the set piece will be massive for us. If we can get parity up front I’m sure with the way we are playing at the moment we can hopefully hurt them with the ball.”
There was a welcome return for the big man, lock Adam Preocanin, sidelined through injury since the third game of the season against Darlington, and he had a major influence on proceedings as OEs soared to the summit of the National One table again with a hugely impressive 32-12 victory.
Winger Alex Brown scored another brace of tries in what was an outstanding performance from OEs, every bit as emphatic as the scoreline suggested, particularly in the second half playing into a gale-force wind.
Next up, two successive home games at College Meadow, the first of which was against OEs’ perennial bogey side Bishop’s Stortford. Elthamians knew only too well the size of the challenge ahead. They had only beaten the Hertfordshire club twice in eight attempts and the previous season lost both games, 19-13 at College Meadow, and 34-20 in the Christmas clash at Silver Leys.
“Stortford have some exceptional players that the team is based around and they have an excellent defence,” Howard said. “Despite their lowly position in the league, which I think is a false position to be honest, they have conceded fewer points than virtually everyone in the league, so our attack has to be spot on.”
The Old Boys handed a league debut to Cameron Holenstein who had arrived at the club from Championship outfitJersey at the end of November. The powerhouse prop made an immediate impact, both in the set piece and with the ball in hand, where his bullocking runs made life distinctly uncomfortable at times for would-be Stortford tacklers.
In atrocious conditions at a freezing, rain-drenched College Meadow, the Elthamians scrum laid the platform for a clinical 17-3 victory.
“We played the conditions very well today,” said Director of Rugby Gavin Lach. “I thought we were dominant up front and we kept it tight - it certainly wasn’t a day for expansive rugby! Defensively as well we were outstanding, especially in the second half.”
And so to the final league game of the year.
And what a way to sign off 2018, with a Christmas cracker against local rivals Blackheath - 1st v 2nd in National One and the two clubs separated by just four points. It was a mouth-watering match-up.
What a game too for Elthamians hooker Jay Rudland-Thomas to reach 100 appearances for the club. “I am really pleased to be making my 100th appearance for OEs - I think it's a decent landmark for any rugby player and, to be honest, I didn't think I would get there when I first joined,” Rudland-Thomas admitted. “Over the last four seasons the club has come such a long way.”
A club record crowd packed into College Meadow to see two outstanding sides go at it hammer and tongs for 80 minutes. As an attacking spectacle, it wasn’t pretty at times, especially with both defences in unseasonably miserly and unforgiving mood. But it was pulsating and it was compelling - and simply impossible to take your eyes off it for even a moment.
The pivotal moment came on 33 minutes when prop Cameron Holenstein, a hero against Stortford, became the villain of the piece when he was shown a red card for a dangerous tackle on Blackheath hooker Mike Perks. From then on 14-man Elthamians were always trying to chase the game as Blackheath held their nerve and their defensive discipline in a fast and furious second half to secure a 12-11 victory.
“We gave away nine penalties at scrum time and played more than half the game with 14 men and at this level you can’t play against a team as good as Blackheath with 14 men and expect to win,” Sam Howard said. “I think if we’d have had 15 men on the pitch we’d have won the game as we had to chase it a little bit after the dismissal, but it was a red card, no question. I don’t think there was any malice in it, it was a rush of blood to the head and he got his timing wrong.”
Elsewhere, the Extras’ inconsistent form continued - a hard fought 18-14 win over Cinderford United was followed by a disappointing 28-14 defeat to Bishop’s Stortford Blues in their final outing before the Christmas break.
The Development XV ended 2018 on a high note, squeezing past Old Alleynians 2nds 24-21 then thumping Beckenham 2nds 53-0, while the Bulls’ disappointing run continued into the new year when they went down 37-10 at Old Dunstonians 2nds in their only game of the month.
OEs Women reached the halfway point of their first ever season in Championship Two South riding high at the top of the table after hammering Chesham Ladies 53-0.
Updated 19:38 - 4 Jan 2019 by Jon Edwards
Winger Anneka Willis scored four tries as OEs romped to a comprehensive nine-try victory and their biggest ever winning margin at College Meadow.