A cursory look at the league table prior to kick-off might have suggested that this fixture would be ‘just another day at the office’ for a mid-table King’s team that had dispatched Andover away before Christmas and against opponents who were teetering on the precipice of relegation. Look a little closer though and a different story is revealed. Whilst King’s started the year brightly with three successive wins and sat in third with eight games left to play, results since have been less impressive with just seven points from five losses and one win. Andover by contrast have found some form in their last six games accumulating nine points from a 1pt defeat at Warlingham, followed by a notable losing BP away at London Cornish, and more recently the men in black took all five points at home to Basingstoke and two in a 19-19 draw with Weybridge Vandals.
Arguably part of the reason for King’s rather underwhelming form of late has been the headaches and disruption that (non)availability and inevitable injuries bring to selection. This week was no exception and once again several players found themselves either stepping up a level or pressed back into action sooner than ideal circumstances would prefer. Whatever, both teams had fifteen on the field and three on the bench when the whistle blew and before the expectant eyes of dozens of former players who had enjoyed their annual pre-match lunch King’s last home game was underway.
For the Old Boys things slowly and it was a fired-up Andover were the first to cross for a converted try to the right of the uprights with just four minutes played; 0-7. When the hosts did get their hands on the ball the challenge was retaining it as a string of turnovers ensued, each time Andover were able to avert the danger and it was back to square one. With just 17mins on the board King’s were forced into an early change as Brett Williams was forced off for a HIA, Paul Calaminus replacing him in the front row (the former returning to replace Sam Rhodes on 27mins who himself required a HIA).
Andover were playing like a team with a plan and it came as no surprise that they were the next to score, their outside half the first (but not the last) to take advantage of some lacklustre fringe defence; 0-14. It proved to be his last contribution for a while as soon after the referee dispatched him for a 10min rest, but even with a man fewer King’s were unable to crack the safe despite both aerial and territorial assaults on the visitors’ in-goal area. As it transpired there was to be no further score by either side and King’s were themselves reduced to fourteen moments before the interval as Ben Welham’s backchat having been penalised cost him a trip to the cooler.
As King’s retired to the dressing-room to regroup they would have known that whilst being behind by two scores was plainly far from ideal, they had trailed 5-28 at the same stage to league leaders Cobham a month earlier and recovered to 23-28 before eventually succumbing, so there may well have been thoughts of a (more successful) repeat. Any hopes were almost immediately dashed however, as a failure to claim the restart, compounded by a not-straight lineout saw King’s defending a 5m scrum. The young Andover No.8, a handful all day, duly barged over from the set-piece to make the lead look increasingly ominous; 0-21.
Not before time King’s attacked with something approaching genuine threat, Sam Harrison prominent throughout as he twice came close to the whitewash. Regrettably it was a case of déjà vu for the hosts as the ball was turned over and Andover were able to clear their lines. Toby Pheasant tried to inject some tempo into proceedings attacking from a quick tapped penalty, but too much of the action was taking place in midfield and the threat was never more than nominal. Things then turned from bad to worse for King’s as with twenty to play Brett Williams saw red for retaliation.
At this stage even the most optimistic of home supporters would have been hard pressed to make a case for anything other than defeat, but any lingering hopes quickly evaporated as Andover crossed twice more (one converted) in ten minutes to secure the bonus point and their Level 7 status for another year; 0-33. Those who stayed to the end saw things deteriorate further from a King’s perspective as, with seven to play, an attempted offload on half-way was intercepted by a grateful left wing who cruised home for try number six; 0-40. Andover were not done, and they crashed over for their seventh try in what was to be the last play; 0-47.
Rather than try and make excuses for King’s shortcomings let us instead say well done to Andover for a performance of grit and no little skill which showed that they were determined to stay in London Two SW. If the men from the Goodship play like this more regularly next year they will not find themselves amongst the basement dwellers again in twelve months’ time – Portsmouth are living proof, a team who survived in 2014-15 by just a point and this season are now sure to finish fifth.
For the Old Boys there remains a chance on Saturday to show that this outing was nothing more than an uncomfortable anomaly. London Cornish are second in the league, certain to head to a play-off with Sevenoaks from London Two SE in due course and will certainly be eager to avenge the defeat they suffered to King’s way back in September. Things can only go one way and it’s up to the players to make the sacrifices this week to ensure that today’s humbling is expunged from the memory at the first opportunity.