A week after finishing just short against 3rd place Twickenham the 1XV were required to turn their attention to more familiar opposition in the form of old adversaries Winchester RFC. The side from North Walls Park have had a disappointing start to their 2017-18 campaign recording just two victories (over Hampshire rivals Andover and Eastleigh) set against six losses which together meant that coming into game they sat 9th in L2SW. Any complacency which King’s might have entertained would have been ill-advised as they would, or certainly should, have remembered that last season Winchester comfortably won their home game 32-10 and then squeezed out their hosts 18-19 in the return leg.
There were several changes to the team that took the field seven days previous, with alterations throughout the side. When Peter Januszewski failed to recover from a hamstring strain it was left temporarily to Jonny Kiddle and later Sam Young to fill the No.4 shirt, blindside Rory Buckingham was unavailable through injury and his place was taken by Greig Blackie for his second 1XV appearance of the season. Will Nelson returned at fly-half, allowing Luke Minors to be restored to his preferred centre berth at the expense of Calum Williams. The final change saw Will Kibblewhite back on the left wing for his first start since September. With the sides having observed a minutes silence in honour of Remembrance Day, at 2.30pm referee Joshua Jelley put the whistle to his lips.
Home supporters did not have long to wait for something to cheer as early on Winchester infringed at the ruck and Gareth Stoppani kicked the points on offer; 3-0. Just a few moments later and King’s were to fall foul of the official themselves when for the second week in succession skipper Joe Mason was penalised for reasons unclear as he played a ball which looked for all the world looked to be in open play having been dislodged by a heavy hit from Will Kibblewhite. Regardless, the decision stood and the despite the kick giving the appearance of having missed, in time both flags were raised; 3-3. Once again the pendulum swung with 12mins on the clock as Winchester conceded a further ruck penalty and Gareth Stoppani made no mistake; 6-3.
In truth the opening exchanges had offered little by way of genuine entertainment, and it came down to Winchester to offer the first flash of inspiration, a sharp tap-and-go penalty inside the home 22 from the visitors’ talented scrum-half (and King’s MOM nomination) proved too much to deal with for the back-peddling defence as he plunged over for a try which was improved; 6-10. The score briefly provided the pep that the game needed and both teams lifted the tempo in the passage of play that ensued, King’s coming closest close through Tom Smith following a Greig Blackie break, but a knock-on put pay to the chance.
King’s kept the pressure on in the tight with the front-row making plenty of headway against their opposite numbers, although the penalty which seemed inevitable never came. In the end it was from a lineout that the hosts were to generate the scoring opportunity they sought as having conceded a penalty which was kicked to touch, Sam Young pinched the resulting Winchester throw and a couple of phases later the ball found its way to winger Tom Smith who provided a clinic finish close to the flag; 11-10. Ten more minutes remained in which the teams effectively cancelled one another out leaving the tallies unchanged at the interval.
A point apart told the story of the first forty, the game had had its moments but was yet to fulfil its promise and a neutral observer would have been hard pressed to say which of the protagonists was purportedly aspiring to push for the top three of the league. Followers of both sides hoped better things lay in store, but when the referee incorrectly adjudged the restart to be other than in accordance with the laws despite having gone 10m, albeit having bounced, things hardly augured well. As it transpired the first scoring opportunity of the second half was to come to King’s as following a scrum turnover they were eventually able to force a turnover and soon after a penalty was signalled which was to take King’s four points clear; 14-10.
Whilst the home side held the lead, but it was slight and vulnerable. If ever there was a time to score next, this was it and King’s ramped up the tempo and intensity of their attacks. The signs were encouraging as Winchester found themselves retreating closer to their line with every passing phase and it looked all but certain to culminate in a try; and it did, as the disbelieving Winchester full-back reached out to grasp an inception before running fully 95m to dot down beneath the posts to put the visitors back ahead; 14-17. Whilst a swift repost would have been helpful, it took until the 69th minute when yet another ruck penalty was to elicit the next scoring chance which Gareth Stoppani gratefully took; 17-17.
With the available time slipping away Winchester were awarded a seemingly innocuous lineout on half-way. The set-piece functioned well and on a sudden their burly lock burst a tackle or two and found space which had until then been substantially deprived of the visitors. King’s looked uncharacteristically panicked and after a series of carries it was to be the Winch openside who would wind his way through and round the last line of defence, the kick was good; 17-24. The drama was not over as with forty minutes up Winch won a penalty fully 45m out, but the kick fell both short and wide and now King’s had the ball. Before the visitors had the opportunity to realign a counter-attack was on and as the play went wide Tom Smith was away down the right, he passed inside to Sam Young just 20m out and when he released Joseff Edwards to finish the move Winchester hearts sank. Alas, Mr Jelley determined the last pass to be forward and signalled a scrum instead. There was nearly a (final) final twist as the Winchester pack was shunted back, the pressure seeing the attempted clearance kick charged down, but it was a defender’s hand that was the first to reach the loose ball in-goal and with that it was over.
On the day King’s didn’t lack for perspiration but the inspiration was ultimately lacking and it when all was said and done it was destined to be one of those days best put down to experience as they slipped to 5th in the league, just a losing BP to show for their efforts. Perhaps it was a touch of cumulative fatigue owing to the rigours of what has been a pretty unrelenting start to the season, perhaps the visitors will to win was underestimated, or maybe King’s are just finding that the same rugby gods that smiled on them in recent weeks are now frowning a touch. Whatever, Winchester recorded three tries to the hosts one and missed just one kick at goal so it would be unbecoming to begrudge them what was a hard fought win. We shall eagerly anticipate the return leg in March.
Next week King’s will have a chance to rest some aching bones and can put their feet up and see if Eddie Jones’ England team can improve on the “grindathon” they were party to at the Cabbage Patch as Australia arrive in SW London. In the meantime the Old Boys next opponents, 6th place Farnham, will visit Gosport & Fareham in the Intermediate Cup come Saturday and having been edged out by a point in the last play yesterday versus Twickenham will surely be seeking both to progress in the knock-out competition and then to overtake King’s before December is ushered in.
Tries: Tom Smith
Penalties: Gareth Stoppani x 4