Stunning. Simply stunning.
Sale, the self-styled ‘northern Dogs of War’, engulfed by a tidal wave of yellow and blue.
Heywood Road, a ground steeped in rugby heritage and tradition, has witnessed many great afternoons, but for Old Elthamians this was undoubtedly the single greatest moment in the club’s long history as they secured their place in National One for the first time.
The scenes at the final whistle of this nerve-shredding National Two play-off were genuinely emotional - and with good reason.
After three nomadic years of uncertainty and doubt, this was the moment the entire club - players, supporters, coaches, juniors, mums and dads - came together in a rousing celebration of a new chapter in OEs' history.
Gavin Lach’s men, roared on by a wonderful travelling support, left absolutely everything on the field in pursuit of the promotion they have fixated on since the start of the season. And by the end, they had absolutely nothing left to give.
The sight of 19-year-old winger Huw Roberts lying prone on the try-line on the final whistle, blood seeping from a nasty cut under his eye, alongside an equally battered Max Wilkins, downed on one knee, the pair exhausted and in need of treatment after trying to stop a last ditch Sale try, summed up the unwavering commitment to the cause that has been the hallmark of Elthamians’ season.
From one to 20, the players were simply magnificent, and they needed to be against an outstanding Sale outfit who brought a physicality and intensity around the park that the Old Boys have rarely encountered this season.
It was compelling and it was nerve-racking. It was also, at times, wincingly hard-hitting and brutal as the players, with little regard for their own welfare, put bodies on the line with shuddering hits that reverberated around the famous old ground.
Yet it was played in a fantastic spirit and an absolute credit to two sides who stood toe to toe hammering away at each other from the first whistle to the last.
In truth, there was little sustained attacking play of merit and clear-cut try-scoring chances were few and far between - the two coaching units had done their homework defensively. But as a spectacle, as a climax to a gloriously unpredictable campaign, it was impossible to take your eyes off it.
Sale, it must be said, were marvellous, welcoming and gracious hosts. A proud and proper rugby club down to its very foundations, their industry and quality on the field only equalled by their friendliness and tireless work off it to ensure their boisterous guests from the south east would have an afternoon they would never forget.
When the Sale coaching staff come to review the video, however, they will wonder how their side contrived to lose a game in which they probably secured three quarters of the possession. Indeed, OEs spent most of the second half without the ball.
In the final analysis, Elthamians won this play-off because they were more effective out wide with the little possession they secured, and their exceptional defence shut down the big Sale ball carriers so conclusively that the home side eventually ran out of ideas as to how find a way past the wall of blue and yellow shirts.
Elthamians’ back row trio of captain Hamish Barton, George Messum and Truman Sullivan were absolutely superb around the fringes and had a field day at the breakdown. Indeed, the number of times they stole possession, it’s amazing the Met Police didn’t issue Sale with a crime reference number.
All the talk in the pre-match build-up had been about the barnstorming Sale midfield duo of Scott Rawlings and Paulo Odugwu. But they were marshalled so exceptionally well by OEs centres Wilkins and James Golledge, that Sale’s attacking play was never given the width and penetration it needed especially with two dangerous runners in Liam Moorhouse and Ciaran Connelly waiting on the wings.
There was one passage of play midway through the second half that pretty much summed up Sale’s afternoon. After bashing and battering away at the OEs defensive line through 13 phases, they found themselves some 15 metres further back than where they’d started thanks to a succession of big OEs tackles, including two huge hits from Messum and the outstanding Ian Kench which forced the turnover and won OEs the scrum on the edge of the Sale 22.
It typified a fast and furious contest in which neither side was ever able to impose their own attacking will on proceedings.
A nervous, edgy, mistake-ridden opening quarter saw both sides set a furious tempo early on but were unable to establish any continuity due to a succession of knock-ons, dropped passes and turnovers.
However, it was Elthamians, ignited by effervescent scrum-half Ollie Claxton and beginning to get into their stride out wide, who struck first blood with two Tom White penalties to open up a 6-0 lead after 24 minutes.
Sale forced their way back into the game with their forwards having some success on the crash ball close to the breakdown and a superb break off the top of a lineout by lively scrum-half Sam Stelmaszek took play all the way into the OEs 22. They levelled the scores with two penalties in the space of five minutes by full-back Liam McGovern after OEs has been penalised for ruck infringements.
The pivotal moment of the half came three minutes before the interval. An arcing run by Golledge enabled Elthamians to get in behind the Sale defence 10 metres inside home territory. The ball was recycled quickly to White, standing in midfield, who sent a long, high risk pass over to Lespierre on the right flank which the on-rushing Connelly came within inches of intercepting.
Lespierre raced away down the wing then cut inside, only to brought down inches from the try-line by a despairing tackle from the covering defender, Stelmaszek. It was almost a carbon copy of the last minute high tackle on Lespierre in the top of the table clash against Chinnor which wasn’t awarded and cost OEs victory.
The referee on this occasion, however - Callum Howard - after consulting with his assistant, showed Stelmaszek a yellow card and walked under the posts to award OEs the penalty try.
White’s conversion gave Elthamians a 13-6 lead but there was still time for Sale to reduce the deficit again when experienced fly-half Chris Johnson calmly slotted over a long range drop goal on the stroke of half-time.
If there was little to separate the two sides in a frenetic opening period, it was Sale who came out full of intent after the restart. The forwards began to flex their muscles, monopolising possession and patiently building through the phases, only to be met time and again by a wall of yellow and blue shirts.
For the much of the third quarter, most of the play centred between the two 10 metre lines as Sale kept hold of the ball with No.8 Tom Ailes impressive throughout, and showed plenty of huff and puff, without ever looking like creating a try-scoring opening.
The next score would prove crucial and it came from the ever reliable boot of White. Awarded a penalty 10 minutes inside the Sale half, the fly-half calmly slotted the ball between the posts to give Elthamians a 16-9 lead, a significant advantage in a game of such few chances as this.
Having soaked up the pressure like a boxer on the ropes and with the vocal visiting supporters on the edge of their seats willing the clock to run down, the Old Boys suddenly sprang to life for one final push.
On 76 minutes, White sent a clever chip into the corner of the home 22 for Huw Roberts to run on to. The Kent Under-20 winger was held back by his opposite number as he closed in on the bouncing ball and referee Howard awarded the penalty.
Electing to kick for the corner and wind down the clock, the OEs pack kept the ball tight before the ball was spun out to White, who had stepped back in the pocket to line up the drop goal.
The club’s longest serving player, as he has done so often in the last 10 years, nervelessly sent the ball sailing towards the posts, turning his back without even a second glance as the referee signalled for the drop goal.
It was the score that clinched a famous victory. But even then, there was still time for some late drama as Sale came storming back into the visitors' half in stoppage time and finally made headway.
After their forwards had battered away at the visitors’ line, the pressure had to tell and centre Odugwu was able to force his way over in the right hand corner in what was to prove the final play of the game.
McGovern missed the conversion and the referee blew the final whistle prompting scenes of jubilation from the yellow and blue faithful. A remarkable end to a remarkable season.
Sale: McGovern, Moorhouse, Odogwu, Rawlings, Connolly, Johnson, Birchall, Longmore, Aigbokhae, Davies, Postlethwaite, Rawlings, Bache, Ailes. Replacements: Kelly, Briggs, Sanderson, Davenport, Bradley.
OEs: A Brown, Lespierre, Golledge, Wilkins, Roberts, White, Claxton, Liffchak, Morris, North, Kench, Preocanin, Sullivan, Barton, Messum. Replacements: Bevans-Royston, Rudland-Thomas, Ledger, Parker, Robinson.
Half-time: Sale 9 Old Elthamians 13
Referee: Callum Howard
Updated 15:54 - 9 May 2017 by Jon Edwards