OEs flattened by Darlington power play
Elthamian’s four-match unbeaten run came to a shuddering halt in the impressive Northern Echo Arena as they were run over by a Darlington juggernaut.
Darlington Mowden Park 36 Old Elthamians 21
Director of Rugby Gavin Lach talked of the battered bodies in his dressing room afterwards, and with good reason. This was a clear step up in level for OEs who have not encountered a side with as much size, strength or physicality as Darlington demonstrated throughout a bruising but wonderfully entertaining 80 minutes.
This was OEs’ first test against a top six side and they were handed a lesson in the harsh realities of just what it takes to live with the very best in National One.
Darlington are an impressive outfit, no question, and will surely be there or thereabouts in the title race come the end of the season on the evidence of this performance that was full of pace and power.
In Simon Uzokwe, a rampaging and muscular force of nature in the backrow, they possess a one-man wrecking ball. Built like a brick outhouse, the on-loan Newcastle Falcon flanker enjoyed a massive afternoon in every sense. But he was just one of several powerhouses in pink shirts to shine, not least man of the match winger Shaun McCartney.
Despite the scoreline, this was not a bad OEs performance. Far from it. In fact, in many ways the coaching staff will have learned more about their players from this game than any of their four victories so far this season.
They were astonishingly brave and committed in defence, their tackling at times showing an almost reckless disregard for their own safety. They worked themselves to a standstill, epitomised by the tireless performance of the outstanding George Messum who seemed to cover every inch of the arena and whose tackle count must surely have been through the roof.
For almost an hour, the Old Boys stayed in touch on the scoreboard and created enough chances to get within a score of the home side by the end. But they were own worst enemies with the ball in hand at times, especially in the second half, turning over possession with a series of unforced errors which was to ultimately prove their undoing.
A difficult afternoon in prospect became a whole lot tougher even before the first whistle when Joe Carlisle went over on his ankle in the pre-match warm-up and had to be replaced by travelling reserve Max Wilkins in the centres.
Worse was to follow for the Old Boys when influential lock Adam Preocanin, Elthamians’ most consistent player so far this season and a powerful presence in the front five, took a blow to the head making a tackle after 15 minutes and was led from the field.
The lock’s departure for the remainder of this hard fought encounter was a huge loss for the Old Boys who sorely missed his power and physicality around the park especially in the tight exchanges.
Uzokwe served notice of what was to come only a few minutes in with a barnstorming carry that seemed to drag half the Elthamians pack with him before he was brought down metres from the visitors’ try-line.
It was an ominous early sign for the Old Boys. But they withstood the early onslaught and with Tom White kicking for territory beautifully, they began to feel their way into the game.
They stunned the home crowd with the opening try after 10 minutes. Awarded a penalty just inside the Darlington half, White elected to kick for the corner. The resulting lineout was driven to the home line by the OEs forwards and hooker Jay Rudland-Thomas spun out of the melee to crash over the line, White converting.
Darlington fought back and for the next 10 minutes they camped into the OEs 22, bombarding the try-line with a series of forward drives. The OEs first-up tackling was exceptional and it needed to be because having lost Preocanin, they were heavily out-weighed up front.
Eventually, the home side levelled the scores on 20 minutes when, after a series of set scrums, winger Callum McKenzie burrowed over from close range, fly-half Brett Connon converting.
Elthamians dusted themselves down, regrouped and after a scrappy period of play midway through the half, retook the lead on 33 minutes. Excellent line-speed in defence caused confusion the Darlington ranks and when they lost the ball in midfield, Dom Lespierre was quick to pounce on the loose ball and race to the line unopposed for his ninth try of the season.
The lead lasted just four minutes. Brothers Brett and Grant Connon combined beautifully in the home midfield to split the OEs defence just outside their 22, Grant racing under the post for a well-worked score.
Both sides could be reasonably satisfied with a 14-14 half-time score which was a fair reflection of an intriguing opening 40 minutes in which neither side could claim to have gained the upper hand.
The opening 10 minutes of the second half would prove crucial for both sides. Unfortunately for Elthamians, it was the period which saw the game slip away from them. Just four minutes after the restart and with Darlington having started strongly again, Elthamians were reduced to 14 men when No.8 Harry Ledger, who had otherwise produced a typically robust display around the park, was shown a yellow card for not rolling away at the breakdown.
With the stretched and overworked visitors’ defence now at a numerical disadvantage, the home side stepped up a level. Quick ball off the top of a lineout in the 22 saw the bullocking McCartney scatter two tacklers before sprinting to the line on 48 minutes.
Connon added a penalty to extend Darlington’s lead to 24-14 on the hour and although Elthamians began to secure more possession and attempted to move the ball around, their momentum was halted by a series of sloppy mistakes.
On 57 minutes, the OEs pack drove into the Darlington 22 and looked to be edging towards the try-line, only to drop the ball a few metres out. It was a let-off for Darlington and they were quick to capitalise on the visitors’ profligacy. Winning a penalty just inside the Elthamians half, they kicked to the corner and after their attempted catch and drive was thwarted illegally, Uzokwe took a tapped penalty and bulldozed his way over from close range.
Given the pace, intensity and physicality throughout, it was to their immense credit that Elthamians somehow summoned the energy for another assault on the home line. From the restart, a trademark darting break from Ollie Claxton saw the replacement scrum-half brought down two metres from the Darlington line.
Elthamians won the penalty, winger McKenzie was despatched to the sin bin and after a series of drives were halted short of the try-line, Messum was rewarded for an outstanding individual performance when he forced his way over from close range on 69 minutes.
It was only a brief respite, however, as Darlington came on strongly again, their power runners breaching an increasingly tired defensive line. The hugely impressive McCartney was to have the last word eight minutes from time with the home side’s fifth and final try. Slick hands from the backs created space for the big wing to sprint away down the right flank and touch down.
Old Elthamians: Surman, Lespierre, Moffat, Wilkins, Bennett, White, Egerton, Ledger, Barton, Messum, Scorgie, Preocanin, North, Rudland-Thomas, Rogers. Subs: L Brown, Morris, Sullivan, Hotston, Claxton.
Referee: Matt Turvey