Old Elthamians 35 Tonbridge Juddians 18
How do you give Man-of-the-Match to 18 players?
Now, this was a game. Not for the faint-hearted, the match between second and fourth in the league had almost everything, with a good crowd and great entertainment on the field.
Tonbridge Juddians came keen to avenge their 3-30 home defeat against Dorking last week. They took the lead, only to succumb to an Elthamian purple patch either side of half time. In the end, TJs had to admit defeat to the better side.
The league had granted us a team of four for this game – redundancy sits heavily on certain shoulders – and referee Andrew MacNeaney (RFU London and SE Division) returned for his second time in charge this season, this time with assistants Paul Carroll and Matt Todd (both London Division). David Morgan, Referee’s Advisor, made up the quartet. All had great games: Mr MacNeaney showing that a quality referee hardly gets noticed.
A grand pre-match lunch started the afternoon, with four of TJ’s officials in attendance. What was also good was that a few old Elthamians faces also made the effort to be there: I’m sure they weren’t disappointed.
The 150+ spectators made their way round to the hospital pitch – in a wonderful condition. How John Lloyd does not get Groundsman of the Year, I don’t know.
Both teams took the pitch and the eagerly anticipated game started with the visitors kicking off. The sides could have been cagey in the opening exchanges, but both went for broke. The Old Boys’ scrummage held up and began to dominate – save for a couple of opposition wheels. TJs, however, were first to benefit from the set piece as an OE scrum in their own 22 lead to the first score. No.8 Charlie Sheppeard picked up and passed blind to his flanker James Lindfield. Sadly, the communication was not there and the ball ran free. TJ’s centre Logan nipped in, snaffled the ball and dived over. With Makris adding the extras, OEs went behind; 0-7.
Character-building time for Elthamians. The leaders in the team kept their belief and the home side began to push hard. So hard, in fact, that with only 12 minutes played, Mr MacNeaney went under the posts to signify a penalty try: TJs had hauled down a driving maul only 5m from their line having been driven back a good 20 metres. White completed the comeback; 7-7.
TJs kept their work rate up, always looking dangerous with the ball. The Old Boys went to work on the opposition’s lineout, managing to sneak several against the throw, to great acclaim from the crowd.
Sustained TJ pressure brought the best out of the Elthamian defence. Although the breaks were made, players committed to making the all-important tackle in thwarting the attempts – the back row standing up to be counted. On 15 minutes played TJs scrum-half Hawkes chanced his arm with a drop-goal attempt; 7-10.
OEs forwards responded, and drove straight at the heart of the visitors’ defence. Tom White had the chance to level the scores for a penalty for offside at a ruck, and he gobbled up the chance; 10-10 and the home side’s fans breathed a sigh of relief.
Jonny Williams gets relatively few touches out on the wing, but a good run down the right brought the best out of TJs defence as Makris brought him down. Unfortunately for the home side, the arriving support stepped offside and the fly-half was able to give TJs the lead; 10-13.
Both sides probed now, each needing to find the weakness, if any existed. A good visitor break was stopped as centre Dave Bonner charged down what could have been a telling kick to the corner. His organisation of the defence made sure that few breaks saw success. Continued OEs pressing gave TJs less time than they are used to and the pressure told: a penalty despatched by White for another offside at a ruck; 13-13, and OEs were not going to look back from here.
A great break by Renford Bennett set up the next – ultimately decisive – score. He went blind from a scrum and beat two players, crossing over into TJs half. He dummied the full back only to be caught by the cover defence; Lindfield was on hand for the off load and he drove at the heart of the Judds’ defence. From the ruck, hooker Joe Bonner received the ball on the left wing from a Bennett pass and made no mistake in scoring his try. White made sure the kick counted; 20-13, with 12 first-half minutes to play.
Now the sides knew how the game was going. TJs tried every move, but Elthamians had the answers. A period of absorbing play brought no score until the last minute of the half and top try-scorer in the league Renford Bennett made his presence felt again. He went looking for the ball in the middle and began the move inside his own half, powering through challenges as defenders dropped off him. On the line, he was held up but his support, of Melford, Vanner and Lindfield nudged him over for his thirteenth try of the season. From the left touchline, White pushed the ball to the left of the posts: his only blemish this afternoon; 25-13.
The Referee brought a scintillating half to a close as spectators pinched themselves: this was a game that had captured their full attention and demanded concentration.
White started the second period and OEs’ domination looked set to continue. With three tries already, could they score again and secure the try bonus point? More than that, could they keep out a Tonbridge Juddian team desperate to get something from the game?
Captain Ally Vanner is a master of the lineout and again he and Melford stole TJs ball at will as the teams vied for position in the second half. With eight minutes played, he supported Melford as the big second row was taken out in the air. White chipped to the corner to set up a catch and drive. The maul started and was stopped, ‘Use it!’ came the call and James Lindfield, such a good, hard player, went blind for the corner. Unluckily he had a foot in touch, but OEs had sent out a message of intent: we want this game!
Mr MacNeaney now upped his rate of talking to the captains. Having communication with his assistants obviously made his job easier – oh for a team of three every game! – and he felt the need to calm people down.
TJs now took their turn to push hard, punching through the middle and stretching OEs defence. It was stretched so much that prop Tibbits popped up on the left wing to crash over or a try. TJs weren’t finished yet! Makris made a hash of the kick but the visitors were back in the game; 25-18.
He had a chance at a penalty with 24 minutes gone, but hit a post. The ball was cleared.
With TJs coming back strongly, the last thing Director of Rugby Gavin Lach wanted was to be reduced to 14 on the pitch, but Lindfield saw yellow for interfering with the scrum-half at a ruck. With 15 minutes to play, could TJs press their advantage?
The visitors were lucky not to suffer the same fate as another offside call gave White a shot into the corner. Rob White, industrious all afternoon in midfield, took the ball on and got within three metres of a score; his support went over the top to kill the move, but the intent was there for that last try.
With a minute left of normal time his brother took the game beyond TJs. He had promised to hit a drop goal after a first-half attempt just missed and, out of the blue, he steadied and hit the ball goalwards from five metres inside his own half after TJs fullback had missed touch with a clearance kick. It went high and long and sailed through the middle: three points to the total and OEs closing the game out; 28-18 and Judds out of bonus point range.
It could only take a home try to cap the day. With almost no time left it duly appeared, starting with Captain Vanner stealing another lineout. Good hands saw the ball being taken left, then right as the home side probed for an opening. Mike Ubee’s chip to Dave Bonner eventually gave Williams the chance to touch down in the corner for the bonus-point try. Another great conversion from White finished things off as TJs knew they had been beaten by the better team on the day, 35-18.
All the OEs players merited mention, with the front row earning plaudits again today. How would Lach call MoM? Well, it had to go to the man who ran and ran all afternoon and in the 80th minute got his reward on the other wing, yet again running in support, but this time got the bounce of the ball as well. “You make your own luck,” said Lach, “Jonny had no right to get that bounce, but that’s a rugby ball for you and his chase this time got what the side were looking for, that extra point.” Well played Jonny Williams.
In the other table-topping clash, classy Dorking humbled early contenders East Grinstead. With the Sussex outfit hosting Elthamians next week and Dorking at Foxbury the following game, this season may well be defined in the next fortnight.
In other matters, the eagerly sought-after ‘Guess the Score’ rollover – now over £400 – continues to the Dorking game, when there will be a pre-match lunch. Call Nick Burne or David Brown to book this.