Old Elthamians 16 Colchester 8
Old Elthamians Gain Promotion to National Leagues
Since the Government decided the South East was in drought it hasn’t stopped raining and although previous days had managed to combine wet and sunny intervals the rain on this special day was fine, but relentless. A great deal of work had gone into the arrangements for Colchester’s visit and there was nothing we could about it except to put up with it. Several hundred cars were delicately parked on the first team pitch and, as I write this, all have made it off again afterwards.
We had moved the game next door to where we have played most of our first XV home games this season – “On the best playing surface in Kent” according to Old Elthamians’ Director of Rugby Gavin Lach – and it looked beautiful. We also managed to hire additional bar facilities and fast food, although I dare say they had reduced takings thanks to the weather.
Old Elthamians had come second in London One South to Guernsey, by only three points. In Tom White they had they top points-scorer in the league and his brother Rob was second-highest try scorer, with 20.
Colchester had finished second to Thurrock in London One North, by five points. Although they had lost seven games in the league this season they had gained a huge number of bonus points.
Guest of Honour was the Mayor of Bromley, Councillor David McBride, and several officers of Kent Rugby Football Union.
Elthamians’ Club President David Clent was on hand to lend his expertise, but it was the committee's superb organisation that made the running so smooth - everybody involved can take great pride in the day.
The match referee was Dave Parsons (RFU London and South East), with touch judges John Mendonca and Mark Sleet (both London Society). David Jones (RFU and London Society) completed the group as the fourth official. This was the first game OEs had played with a “Team of Three” and the penalty count in the second half may have been due to that: we’ll just have to get used to it.
Matt Vaughan, player coach and starting fly-half failed a late fitness test on an injury picked up the previous week, so at 1.30pm Gavin had to rearrange the side: Rob White had to switch inside to the number 10 jersey, with Ed Velasco leaving the bench to play on the wing. The mighty powerful Renford Bennett took the final spot on the subs' bench, his first return since Sidcup, second game into the season.
Despite the weather a large crowd – less than the 1000 we had hoped for but probably topping 600 – had gathered and were eagerly awaiting the game. Colchester had brought over 200 supporters with them and hopes were high on both sides as Councillor David McBride took his seat in the stand.
In addition to the incessant rain a strong wind was gusting up the pitch and Elthamians kicked off into it. The home side started well and dominated the first few minutes; Colchester could hardly get their hands on the ball. Strong tackling and great covering showed that they were worthy of the play-off spot in London One North, but a slight overlap from a set-piece let the boys in blue and gold in. From a scrum on the Colchester 22, no.8 Andrew Reeve picked up and popped to Johnny Hosken. He switched to the left and fed Tom White, in from full-back. He broke a tackle and gave wing Paddy Smith a chance on the outside. The chance was well-taken, a try to Old Elthamians after only eight minutes. White missed the conversion from wide out in a day tricky for the kickers, but that was the lead, 5-0.
The next five minutes saw OEs have two tries disallowed, one was clearly grounded by Charlie Sheppeard for all behind the posts to see, but the referee was the wrong side, and the other not so clear from Rob White.
By now Colchester had taken possession of the ball a few times but hadn’t been able to make much progress forward. The conditions meant that passes were not completed and players were slipping, but the tension gave the spectators much to cheer. The home side’s scrum was particularly strong as front row Kavanagh, Thirion and Boxall started to dominate their opposite numbers. Colchester’s hooker had been a late call-up due to injury and he seemed to suffer a difficult afternoon.
The first occasion the visitors managed to make a play in Elthamians’ half produced a penalty for offside, which was missed. Winger Damien Brambley had an unfortunate afternoon with the boot, seeing a fair few penalties slide to the left of the posts. On 25 minutes, though, he was more successful, slotting a penalty from 30 yards to make the score 5-3.
A few minutes later a break by fly-half Rob White ended with a penalty awarded to Elthamians and his brother Tom took full advantage. At half-time the score was Old Elthamians 8, Colchester 3.
A lack of experience of this level of rugby saw both teams out on the pitch for the start of the second period some five minutes before the officials, who arrived to a wry cheer from the stand. Words must have been exchanged in the away dressing room because Colchester started the half like tigers. Inside three minutes they had worked an opening and had slid in for an unconverted try. If Elthamians had thought that playing with the wind in the second half was going to be easier than the first, they now knew they were up against a good team.
The referee started to look at the lineout as, I think, he felt that players were illegally closing the gap to reach the ball. Several penalties ensued, mostly against OEs and cleared up the line by Colchester, until his patience ran out and Jon Aston saw yellow. Brambley tried again for the posts, to no avail.
Further offences saw Colchester’s captain, prop James Mitchell, also yellow-carded, giving Tom White the chance to clear his lines downwind. So far were his kicks going, that one monster clearance from almost his own 22 travelled the length of the pitch and went out over the dead-ball line: scrum back to Colchester!
Poor Brambley’s day got worse when he sliced a kick up field and it landed in White’s arms. He promptly dropped a goal from about three metres inside his own half own half to make it 11-8, Elthamians had weathered the storm and you could see from this score their heads were up.
The referee was now looking closely at the scrum where OEs were totally on top. Four times the home side had a drive on and the ball at the no. 8's feet: four times it went down. Four penalties were awarded but no more; Colchester were trying to disrupt clean ball. With about ten minutes remaining the game was killed off by a great move from the home side. The forwards had sucked in the defence and quick ball from a ruck was passed out left to Rob White, Owen Lewis and fittingly it was captain Jonny Williams, who crashed over for a try. Colchester’s heads went down as they realised that their day was not to be.
Although White missed the conversion, Elthamians were jubilant and had just to play out the last few minutes with an unassailable lead. More penalties followed inside the OEs 22 but the defence held firm, a yellow card for Andrew Reeve was issued but Brambley missed with another kicking attempt.
At the final whistle the score was Old Elthamians 16, Colchester 8. Joy for Elthamians, and the first time ever in the National leagues. A very hard-fought season climaxed in the rain to bring deserved promotion. For Colchester, a day of disappointment for their plucky players and superb supporters means that London One North is their unfortunate reward.
Speaking to Director of Rugby Gavin Lach afterwards, who was ecstatic about the result, he said: "I have to take my hat off to all my coaching team: Vaughany and Rupert Chitty, and back-up staff in Sutts, Becky, Peter Tame and Stuart White. We have a very small squad but these guys kept turning players out for me. We have put together a 13-match unbeaten run since January, it's a club record in the first fifteen. I am told we have also not lost a league game now for two seasons at home, but none of it could have been done without the team around me. It's been a fantastic finish and we are sure going to enjoy tonight. What we do now have, however, after the dust settles, is a massive task in the National leagues next year: look, this was our first season back in London 1 and we were under the radar a wee bit. We caught several sides cold as we were a totally different side from three seasons ago, playing to a different game plan. We did our homework on other sides, but not too many people knew what to expect from us: we moved the ball and, to be honest, not many sides could live with that, which surprised me a little. I have to say the standard of back play is very, very average by some sides, so we as a squad we got very fit in the off season because I wanted to play this moving-the-ball game. We ran in over 50 tries on the wings: add to that another 25 in the 13 and 15 shirts and that's the way I think the game should be played. We got promotion for the second year on the spin which is a year ahead of where I thought we would be, to be honest. I sat down with the Chairman last summer after we won London 2 and he asked me if I thought we would be competitive in London 1. My reply was that London 1 was a stepping stone and we wanted to get out of it at the first attempt and take this club into the National leagues."
We have ticked that box! Well done to every single player at OEs that has been involved this year in the first XV, it has been an outstanding Centenary season. Now I wonder what he is planning for National League rugby next season?