OEs weather the storm to snatch late victory
A try at the death from wing Craig Dowsett saw Elthamians continue their unbeaten start to 2016 in appalling conditions in Bristol
Clifton 16 Old Elthamians 20
This enthralling contest, played in the most atrocious weather conditions seen for several seasons, was the perfect antidote to those who question the relevance of the scrum in the modern game.
Simply put, the scrum was the defining factor in a match of ferocious intensity and commitment from two sides who will both feel they did enough to win.
The scrum loomed large over an afternoon in which momentum swung the way of both sides at various stages, and created most of the game’s major talking points
It laid the foundations for Elthamians’ most clinically efficient first half display of rugby this season, and was also the major reason for Clifton’s impressive second half transformation.
And when the Elthamians management come to review the season, they may well regard this match as a pivotal moment in the development of their side, because this was a display of sheer guts, bloody mindedness and a refusal to accept defeat after being battered, bruised and forced to defend for a large period of the second half with only 14 men.
The torrential rain and swirling wind that was unrelenting throughout the afternoon ensured this was never going to be a high scoring display of running rugby. Indeed, at times it was a major feat that the players managed to stay on their feet, let alone move the ball around.
Given then, that they were playing in the worst conditions in recent memory, Elthamians deserve high praise for producing comfortably their most efficient, clinical 40 minutes of the season.
In the previous meeting between the two sides back in September, OEs had caught Clifton cold with a four-try blitz in the opening 30 minutes. There was never any chance of a repeat display on this occasion – Clifton were far too savvy and well organised for that. But for very different reasons, this was an equally impressive first half effort from the Old Boys.
The pack worked tirelessly against larger opposition, with the scrum again providing the early impetus and captain Ally Vanner enjoying an excellent afternoon in the lineout on his return from injury.
But it was Elthamians’ work at the breakdown which proved to be the difference between two very evenly matched sides in the opening 40 minutes. Time and again, they cut down the big Clifton runners on the gain-line and committed larger numbers to the tackle area which allowed the outstanding Lewis Brown and flankers Lee Nelmes and Truman Sullivan to force a succession of turnovers.
As a result, Clifton were never able to settle despite enjoying an equal share of possession and it allowed the OEs pack to take control of proceedings and pin the home side back in their own half.
OEs scored the opening try on seven minutes. Vanner won good ball at the lineout just outside the home 22 and a powerful drive allowed the ubiquitous Nelmes to dive over, White converting.
Clifton replied with a James Mackay penalty on 18 minutes but it was to be the only time they threatened the scoreboard for the remainder of the half as the Elthamians pack created the second try of the half on 35 minutes.
After winning a scrum against the head five metres from the home line, OEs were awarded a penalty and elected to kick to touch. Vanner won the resulting lineout and the forwards drove to the Clifton line where No.8 Tom Brown was on hand to dive over.
The Old Boys were good value for their 10-3 lead at half-time, but injuries to props Aaron Liffchak (back) and then his replacement Rhys Boxall (shoulder) towards the end of the half took some of the gloss off their hard work and proved to be a portent of the dramatic events that were to unfold.
If the visitors fully deserved their half-time lead, the second period belonged almost in its entirety to Clifton who took full advantage of an injury-ravaged and hastily re-shuffled Elthamians pack, and were a team transformed after the break.
Using their hard working, disciplined forwards to punch holes in the Elthamian defence, Clifton reduced the deficit to four points with a second Mackay penalty within 60 seconds of the restart.
Although White gave Elthamians some breathing space with a penalty of his own when the home side were penalised for crossing on 50 minutes, it was only a brief respite as Clifton began to turn the screw in the tight.
The OEs scrum, which had laid the platform for their earlier successes, was shunted back at an alarming rate and with Clifton’s muddy, rain-drenched pitch resembling a scene from the Somme at times, with battered forwards laying sprawled on the turf receiving treatment, the second half was a stop-start affair, punctuated by numerous injury stoppages.
Something had to give, and eventually after a long period of pressure in the OEs 22, which saw another injury in the Elthamians front row, referee Luke Hoskins had no option other than to call for uncontested scrums.
It was an unfortunate twist to a fascinating forward confrontation, but ironically from the first uncontested scrum that followed, big back row Alfie To’oala smashed his way over near the posts to give Clifton the lead for the first time.
Mackay added the conversion and another penalty shortly afterwards to give the home side a deserved 16-13 lead with only five minutes remaining. It was only a three-point advantage but given the ever worsening conditions and Clifton’s forward superiority enabling them to monopolise possession and territory, there seemed to be no way back at all for the 14-man visitors.
But Elthamians have proved on several occasions this season that they possess the priceless ability of being able to dig deep when it matters and pull something out of the bag. And so it proved again on Saturday, although there was more than an element of good fortune about their winning score.
With only two minutes remaining, they won a rare penalty and made their first excursion of the half into the Clifton 22. From the resulting lineout, the ball was spread quickly to fly-half Mike Stanley who attempted a deft chip over the on-rushing defence.
The Clifton defence looked to have the kick well covered as it bounced towards the try-line and the covering full-back Will Pomphrey, only to watch in horror as the ball rebounded off the post for on-rushing Elthamians winger Craig Dowsett to dive on the loose ball for the match-winning score.
OES: White, Webber, Golledge, Hough, Stanley, Bressons, T Brown, Nelmes, Sullivan, Dewale, Vanner (capt), Liffchak, Rudland-Thomas, L Brown. Replacements: Boxall, O’Meara, Scorgie, Edwards, McLoughlin
Man of the match: Lewis Brown