OEs pack on the front foot as Albanian feel the squeeze
An exceptional performance by the front five saw Elthamians beat the freezing conditions to record their first ever victory over Old Albanian.
Old Albanian 15 Old Elthamians 24
On a freezing afternoon in biting air, the home side felt the heat of a blazing second half performance from the Elthamians pack who proved to be the decisive factor in this hugely entertaining and hard fought encounter.
Apart from a tentative opening quarter, the OEs front five were simply outstanding, so too front row replacements Lewis Brown and Nathan Morris. They took a firm stranglehold on proceedings which they were never to relinquish, out-muscling Albanian in the tight exchanges and dominating at scrum-time.
Alex Rogers, in particular, had his best game in the OEs front row and his broad shoulders provided the foundations for a victory which was hard earned against a lively and fast-paced Albanian side, bolstered by an influx of Saracens Academy players, who made a mockery of their lowly position near the foot of National One.
There was little to separate both sides early on as they struggled manfully to get to grips with the freezing conditions. A lot of patient build-up and multi-phase play was undone by dropped balls, knock-ons or wayward passes.
From the first scrum, it was apparent OEs held an advantage up front which was to prove decisive in the final outcome as they eventually wore down the tiring home pack, while Albanian, with pace to burn out wide, looked highly dangerous on the counter-attack.
It was the home side who deservedly opened the scoring on 24 minutes with the first worthwhile attacking opportunity of the half. A well-worked driven lineout in the visitors’ 22 forced the OEs defence on the back foot, the ball was moved quickly wide right for full-back Nick Foster to jink his way around behind the posts, Tom Bednall converting.
Elthamians hit back from the restart and won a penalty after a big Adam Preocanin tackle which Joe Carlisle kicked to the Albanian 22. From the resulting lineout, the ball was moved wide and taken to within a few metres of the Albanian try-line. But a pass was dropped and Albanian launched a stunning length-of the field counter-attack - Foster and flying wing Ali Crossdale exchanging passes up the right touchline before Crossdale out-stripped the covering defence to race away for a wonderful score.
Behind 12-0 after half an hour, Elthamians needed a quick response and they made an early tactical switch, replacing both halfbacks Ollie Claxton and Joe Carlisle with Tom Parker and Tom White. It was OEs’ big men up front, however, who took this game by the scruff of the neck in the closing minutes of the half.
They drove a maul fully 20 metres to the Albanian try-line, second row Sam Lunnon was adjudged to have brought it down and shown a yellow card by referee Daniel Collins who had no hesitation in running under the posts to award the penalty try.
However Elthamians were penalised immediately from the restart after sloppy work, and Bednall slotted the three pointer to give Albanian a 15-7 lead.
Two minutes before the interval, the visitor suffered a further blow when they lost prop Bevans-Royston, one of their most consistent and impressive performers in recent weeks, with a leg injury. But his replacement Lewis Brown simply carried on Bevans-Royston’s good work and at the very next scrum, the Albanian pack were shunted backwards and penalised. White’s superb kick to the corner gave Elthamians an attacking lineout which was driven over the try-line, hooker Jay Rudland-Thomas emerging with the ball for the try which was converted by White.
Having cut the deficit to just one point at the interval, it proved to be the turning point of the game because Elthamians came out after the break with all guns blazing and proceeded to monopolise possession and territory for much of the second period.
They extended their lead on 58 minutes after being awarded their second penalty try of the game. Winger Dom Lespierre was brought down a few metres from the Albanian line and from the resulting five metre scrum the OEs pack shoved Albanian back over their own line. Once again referee Collins was quick to run between the posts to award the penalty try.
Growing in confidence now, Elthamians began to bring their backs into the game more, moving play quickly to both flanks. From one slick handling move wide on the right, Lespierre was brought down by a neck high tackle from lock Ross Hamilton which resulted in a yellow card and Albanian reduced to 14 men for the second time at a crucial stage of the match.
To their credit, the 14-men defended exceptionally well as the visitors camped on the edge of their 22, and threatened to reproduce the devastating length of the field counter-attack of the first half when Crossdale burst out of his 22 down the right touchline again. He won a penalty which was kicked into the Elthamians 22, but Albanian could find no way through aggressive defence.
It was the last time Albanian would step inside the visitors' 22. Elthamians sealed an impressive victory four minutes from time and fittingly it was the OEs pack which again did the damage, reducing an Albanian scrum midway in their own half to rubble and winning the penalty which White calmly slotted between the posts.
Old Elthamians: Rogers, Rudland-Thomas, Bevans-Royston, Preocanin, Kench, Messum, Barton, King, Claxton, Carlisle, Emmerson, Wilkins, Moffat, Lespierre, Surman. Replacements: L Brown, Morris, Ledger, White, Parker.