This was a tense game, at least to start with. Both teams were aware of the benefits a win would bring and both understood the perils of losing: for the home side a serious dent in their promotion aspirations, for the visitors an effective end to their league season.
Mr Mark Trimmer, from the Sussex Society of Rugby Football Union Referees, was today’s match official, and we thank him for a well-managed game, he was a very, very good referee. He in turn was most complimentary about the way both teams approached the game.
A good crowd of 250-300 braved the surprisingly cold and windy day. The playing surface was perfect, like a billiard table. Many thanks indeed to John Lloyd for allowing the 1st XV games to be played on his pitch, it gave the home side the width they wanted to try to stretch Basingstoke today, and most other sides during this season.
Old Elthamians kicked off into the breeze. Basingstoke, however, started the better, looking to keep possession and build slowly through their forwards. For the first ten minutes this was the game, and the Old Boys hardly saw the ball at all. Credit to ‘Stoke for their boldness: it surprised the home team, and brought the visitors a try in the 15th minute, duly converted. 0-7 was not meant to be in the script. Behind the posts the message was to get possession and keep it for a while, so that forwards and backs could start to play their natural game.
Elthamians now tried to get back into the game, but the away team’s rolling mauls were well-organised and fruitful, although the 'Stoke fly half was limited in his options. Their scrums were very well managed. The line-outs were evenly contested, both sides winning most of their own ball and stealing a couple from the opposition.
The wind made a difference to the tactics employed: Basingstoke were able to kick long although they did not chose this option much, which was strange, while OEs could only find touch close by. ‘Stoke were called a few times for not-straight throws, unforced errors which handed the Old Boys the ball.
Further pain was inflicted on the home side as an infringement about 30 metres out produced a penalty, duly accepted by Basingstoke. 0-10 after about 30 minutes.
Slowly Elthamians clawed their way back into the game. Some serious rucking and mauling by the forwards, especially Jon Aston and Richard Melford, and great carries by the Secure Trading Man of the Match Andrew Reeve, aided by his fellow back row players started to make ground. When the backs got the ball, they began to look dangerous: Owen Lewis punching holes in midfield. From one such break in the 39th minute the Basingstoke defence opened up and Pat Smith was guided inside on a scissors to cross the try line and go under the posts. Tom White converted and relief was felt all through the stand.
Basingstoke’s coaches and travelling supporters had been very vocal during their ascendency, but now fell quiet: they could see that OEs were back in this game having faced a stiff wind in the first half and now only three points down.
Half time came: the score was 7-10. Now Elthamians would have the wind at their backs, if they could just score to get in front they were confident of closing out the game. Basingstoke reminded themselves of the score-line; the Referee sought a quick massage on a stretched calf muscle.
Basingstoke started the second half and there was a tangible feeling that Old Elthamians had more to offer. A long-range penalty for not binding in the scrum gave White a chance he gladly took, booming it over from the 10-metre line with the wind and at least 20 metres to spare; 'Stoke knew that any penalty in their half was points time: 10-10.
And now the home sides’ backs began to run the ball wide, and several thrusts were rebuffed by good defence until Rob White was set free by a trademark Owen Lewis pass, he squeezed down the touchline and crossed for a try on 50 minutes. The conversion was good and Elthamians drew ahead, in the score and in confidence.
Another penalty three minutes later from White on the right-hand touchline as good as put the match to bed: whatever Basingstoke tried, great tackling meant it didn’t succeed. Long clearances from White on free kicks and penalties saw the away team starting their attacks from deep inside their own half, a very dispiriting place to be.
OEs confidence was such that, on 70 minutes, Matt Vaughan was able to sit back and drop a goal from just outside Basingstoke’s 22-metre line on the right-hand side of the pitch: the fact that he warned the referee he was going to attempt it as OEs had advantage only added to his and the team's joy as it sailed between the top of the posts.
At the final whistle Old Elthamians had done it – 23-10 against a very capable and dangerous Basingstoke team.
The Referee was complimentary: he said that both teams had played in the spirit of the game; there had been nothing off the ball and all the challenges were clean. In a vast improvement over previous weeks, Old Elthamians’ penalty count was just six , two in the first half and four in the second. The discipline really tightened up and it showed: no yellow cards and no needless penalties against.
Steve Tristram, Chairman of Basingstoke RFC, was particularly complimentary after the game. “Thank you very much for your hospitality and for the hard game. Good luck for the rest of the season.”
Gavin Lach, OEs Director of Rugby, was impressed by the composure and discipline shown by his team. “This Basingstoke outfit are as good a side as we have played this year, they offered more than Chichester and Guernsey in that they moved the ball, and did not spend 80 minutes smashing it around the forwards. They play a high standard of rugby and it took a great deal of fight to overcome them. The small number of penalties we gave away today show how disciplined the players were.”
With Guernsey running up a cricket score at home to Sutton and Epsom, and Chichester beating Hayward’s Heath away, it now means Old Elthamians are second, three points behind the Channel Islanders and eight in front of Chichester, with two games left. Basingstoke drop to fourth, two points behind Chichester. A win at Hove next time out will seal a top-two finish, which is just reward for this season and from this very talented squad of players that's been put together.