Claxton's a splash hit as OEs weather the storm
Elthamians ended a run of two successive defeats with a battling performance against high-flying Plymouth in atrocious conditions at College Meadow.
Old Elthamians 16 Plymouth Albion 12
A wet, cold and thoroughly miserable afternoon in the teeming rain at College Meadow, but an Elthamians performance to lift the spirits of the bedraggled home support huddled together on the touchline.
While Gavin Lach’s men never quite veered into excellence - with the ball in hand at least - there was much to admire in the disciplined and astonishingly tenacious way they set about adapting to the atrocious conditions and powerful, well drilled opponents.
It was a landmark victory as well. A first ever win over one of the top four sides in the division at the sixth attempt and proof positive that on their day, Elthamians can live with the best sides in National One.
There will also be quiet satisfaction in several areas from the OEs management team. The halfback partnership of Joe Carlisle and Ollie Claxton is beginning to flourish. The former Wasps fly-half orchestrated play around him astutely, his clever kicking behind the wall of green shirts and on to the slippery surface consistently forced Plymouth to rebuild from deep. The outstanding Claxton was back to his sniping, irritating best around the fringes of ruck and maul. Upping the tempo when OEs most needed it, he was a thorn in the side of the Plymouth defence all afternoon.
Elsewhere, the OEs front row of Alex Rogers, Nathan Morris and Lewis Brown put in a huge shift at the coalface. The Elthamians scrum was dominant all afternoon and combined with another commanding defensive effort, particularly in the final quarter, it laid the platform for a deserved home victory.
OEs had to be at their best defensively as well because the powerful Plymouth pack caused no end of problems whenever they got up a head of steam and started to drive through the phases. Captain Herbie Stupple is one of the best No.8s in the division and he enjoyed a big performance in every sense, particularly with the ball in hand. He also had able lieutenants in lock Dan Swain and hooker Rupert Freestone who were prominent around the park and led the Plymouth fightback towards the end of the first half.
Elthamians had started impressively despite the rain which made handling a lottery at times. They played disciplined, wet weather rugby, keeping the ball tight early on and used their forwards to drive close to the fringes, enabling Carlisle to kick for possession.
The fly-half kicked the home side into an early 6-0 lead with two well struck penalties before Claxton instigated Elthamians’ signature moment of the match on 25 minutes. A lineout in the Plymouth 22 was driven on by the forwards before the backs took over. Claxton’s lovely delayed pass found Max Wilkins on the crash ball and the centre bounced off two tackles, slipped through the arms of a third before showing good strength to dive over the line, Carlisle converting.
A 13-0 lead after half an hour was just reward for OEs’ efforts but the final 10 minutes of the half saw the Plymouth juggernaut slip into gear. They drove into the OEs 22 and forced the home side into conceding a string of penalties in quick succession. Referee Ben Russell eventually lost patience and showed OEs lock Adam Preocanin a yellow card for coming in at the side of a ruck.
Plymouth immediately elected to go for the scrum. Except the anticipated Albion advantage against a depleted pack never materialised. The Elthamians scrum, with centre George Emmerson now packing down on the flank, not only held firm but began to shunt their opposite numbers back.
However, they were penalised again, the visitors chose to scrum again - and the outcome was the same again. The OEs pack remained rock solid. Only this time it was the home side who were awarded the penalty and Carlisle was able to clear the immediate danger.
Unfortunately, Elthamians then managed to undo all their good work in the scrum by losing the resulting lineout which enabled the Plymouth forwards to gallop towards the try-line, prop Jack Owlett crashing over from close range in the final action of the half. Harvey Skinner’s conversion reduced OEs’ lead to 13-7 at half-time, a six-point advantage that never looked likely to be enough playing into a strong wind after the break.
Predictably, OEs spent much of the second half on the back foot, forced to work tirelessly without the ball as the visitors secured the majority of possession and territory. And the home support must have feared the worse when Plymouth reduced the deficit to just one point on 54 minutes with their second try. OEs made an almighty hash of dealing with a hacked kick-through and scrum-half Cameron Setter was able to pounce on the loose ball as it squirted over the try-line.
However, Carlisle’s third penalty on the hour, combined with a subsequent yellow card to Plymouth lock Ed Holmes, gave the home side some much needed breathing space as they were forced to withstand a furious late onslaught from the Devon side.
In a climax not dissimilar to the dramatic defensive effort at the death against Cambridge three weeks earlier, the OEs tacklers hunted Plymouth down with incredible organisation and commitment to the tackle as the visitors laid siege on the edge of the OEs 22.
They worked the ball through numerous phases, edging closer and closer to the OEs line but simply could find no way through the wall of yellow and blue shirts. Eventually, with less than 30 seconds on the clock, they won a penalty which was kicked to the corner for one final play.
But Plymouth were penalised for obstruction at the ensuing lineout and there was almost an audible collective sigh of relief from the home supporters as Carlisle kicked the ball into touch and the final whistle blew.
Tries: Wilkins (25)
Pen: Carlisle x 3 (6,9, 60)
Cons: Carlisle (26)
Tries: Owlett (39), Setter (54)
Cons: Skinner (40)
Old Elthamians: Surman, Lespierre, Emmerson, Wilkins, A Brown, Carlisle, Claxton, L Brown, Morris, Rogers, Preocanin, Hosking, Messum, Barton, King. Replacements: Roofe, Rudland-Thomas, Ledger, White, Parker.
Plymouth: Gott, Crosscombe, Squire, Hendrickson, Cully, Skinner, Setter, Chapman, Freestone, Owlett, Holmes, Swain, Grace, Daly, Stupple. Subs: Norton, Salter, Williams, Shepherd, Snow.
Referee: Benjamin Russell
Half-time: Old Elthamians 13 Plymouth 7