A powerful first half hour proves the difference as King’s established a lead that they never relinquished on their way to securing a sixteenth bonus point win of the season.
With the arrival of Storm Erik in the days immediately prior to this fixture there remained doubt as late as Saturday morning as to whether the pitches would be up to 80mins of league rugby. Pleasingly for players, supporters and administrators alike the clouds parted and the sun even put its hat on, briefly, and the game got the green light. King’s travelled with the confidence that comes from the campaign they have had to date, but mindful that today’s hosts had been the toughest of opponents during the teams’ first meeting back in October which ended 29-22. Eastleigh’s record at Bishopstoke Road was also very decent with four wins set against just two loses, 224 points scored and only 104 conceded. Having got the better of second place Farnham last time out at home there was no doubt “E’s” had it in their armoury to spring a surprise.
As with almost every week there were a few plays either incapacitated, unavailable or ruled and adjustments were required in almost every area of the pitch, the front row being a case in point where none of last week’s starting three did so this time. Absence brings opportunity though, none more so than for Nick Gardner who made his 1XV debut at hooker with Tom Cobb and Brett Williams the props. The bench saw welcome returns for Matt Scott, Jack Griffin and club captain Tom Dugarin the latter two not having featured since rounds 5 and 7 respectively. Longer days mean later kick-offs and with your correspondent’s watch showing 1433 that’s precisely what happened.
From the off King’s showed they were determined to assert their authority and a strong carry from Rob Parker was followed by a break up the right by Ed Forshaw who kicked ahead, the ball stopping just a yard short of the line forcing Eastleigh to defend in the shadow of their posts. When King’s were awarded the scrum, Will Slater fed George Jones whose kick-pass sat up for the onrushing Luke Minors (E’s MOM choice) to cross in the corner with a little over 2mins played; 0-5. E’s restart was hungrily gobbled up by the visitors and another raking kick, this time from George Jones forced the home side to man the pumps deep in their half, whereupon they promptly conceded a penalty for hanging on. King’s went quickly, too fast for Es who failed to retreat 10m, and King’s this time kicked for the corner and on came the drive which culminated in a try for debutante Nick Gardner. But wait, held-up adjudged the referee before muddying the water with an incongruous reference to a double-movement, but in the end a scrum was awarded to King’s. This time there was to be no reprieve as Rob Parker soon crossed from close range with Gareth Stoppani converting; 0-12.
The game then settled for a time, with Eastleigh having the thin end of the wedge but despite teeing-up numerous strike runners to gain them ground they found King’s defence impenetrable. As the hosts scratched their heads King’s soon gave them even more to worry about as some fairly uncomplicated close-range work from the heavies eventually saw Matt Young stretch to put the ball over the line; 0-17. This third try sparked the visitors into life once more as forwards and backs strove to out-do each other. Having been awarded a penalty for a late hit, from the lineout the pack drove the resulting lineout 30m only to see their efforts come to nought. Five minutes later Gareth Stoppani showed a clean pair of heels to several would-be tacklers, but he too was to be frustrated as the play ended in a knock-on with the line beckoning. In amongst it all Will Nelson too came close to the whitewash before a tap-tackle put pay to his fourth try of the season.
The momentum was very much with the away side and when a penalty was awarded a scrum and another kick through from George Jones nearly resulted in a further score, but this time E’s were wise to it and the threat neutralised. King’s remained in the ‘red zone’ and built pressure steadily before the tried and tested Ed Forshaw - George Taylor combination saw the former the winger provide the centre with a scoring pass; 0-22. The action was far from over though as in the time remaining Es were once more the side with the lion share of territory and possession as they sought a score of any kind to get a foothold in the game. Once more King’s were proving more than their match though, Rob Parker rising to steal a lineout and Brett Williams, Dan Staunton and Sam Young shirking no confrontation in the contact area. Eventually the referee did determine that King’s efforts had gone beyond the legal as hooker Nick Gardner was adjudged to have transgressed in the tackle and was consigned to the bin. Replacement Matt Scott was introduced for the last moments of the half but there was nothing more to report before the whistle blew.
Once more King’s had a first half bonus point secure but they had by no means had it all their own and would have done well to remember that they had led 17-0 at home before Eastleigh before came back to win the second period 12-22. The hosts were to have a slight wind advantage after the interval and so whilst they cut slightly frustrated figures the outcome was by no means a foregone conclusion. The second half started as it was to go on, which is to say a burned slow. With the home side in King’s territory they gradually began to build their phases until ultimately ill-discipline at the ruck saw the man in yellow flash a card the same colour as his shirt, Brett Williams the recipient. Coincidently the prop’s enforced rest coincided with the return of Nick Gardner and meant King’s fielded their fourth different front-row line-up of the game. The extended break in play also saw the introduction of Jack Griffin, Tom Dugarin following him onto the pitch ten minutes later
The twenty minutes which followed were by some margin the least eventful of the day. Eastleigh were grafting hard to find a way through, centre and King’s MOM Tom Willoughby leading the way, but each foray was met with King’s defenders hunting in pairs and stopping their opponents on the gain-line and frequently pushing the ball carrier behind it - Tom Cobb, Brodie Wilson and Matt Young all racking up impressive tackle counts. Es were not for giving up though and in time winger Tyson Peters, who had scored twice at Motspur Park, opened his side’s account, full-back Matt Lovell adding the two; 7-22.
Just ten minutes remained, and they belonged to the visitors as King’s surged back and pinned the hosts in their 22. Will Slater thought he had a try to celebrate after touching down from a tap penalty, but the referee pulled him back much to the scrum-half’s consternation. A try was coming and sure enough a series of thrusts were rebuffed, but when the door came ajar Ed Forshaw was the first to react with Gareth Stoppani converting; 7-29.
The game was now in its death throws but King’s did not let up and the tempo was beginning to catch up with a flagging opposition, some late hits and cynical play a sign of tired minds and bodies. When E's conceded a penalty in front of their posts the referee went for his pocket, but George Jones had already restarted play, his pass to Will Slater who put Ed Forshaw in for a brace. Gareth Stoppani stepped up to the stroke over the extras; 7-36. There remained three minutes to play but neither side was able to alter the tally and thus at 1603 time was called.
With no side having put more than 29pts past Eastleigh at home, and that was in defeat, to win by the margin they did was ultimately no mean feat from King’s who defended as well, or better, than they attacked. That said the game was physical and uncompromising and just the sort of test that King’s required to remind them that their quest for the league title will not come without resistance from all the clubs they have left to play. Eastleigh were missing a few on the day and were not as strong as they were in the early part of the season but still have the means to pose problems and will surely continue to do so in their remaining games. The race for second place is keenly contested and the Hampshire side may yet find themselves in a play-off against the L2SE runner-up. Regardless, they have already had a good season and having blooded more players at 1XV level today the future looks bright for the Eastleigh ‘dog’.
There is no let-up in the schedule as next week the side sat just one place below them, Farnham, are the visitors. The Monks Lane side may have lost at Eastleigh a month ago but have responded in decisive style with commanding home wins over Old Emanuel 37-15 and most recently Twickenham 39-5. It was Farnham who sullied King’s unblemished record in 2013-14 as both sides were promoted from L3SW and doubtless they will be enthusiastic to do the same again so King’s must be ready to be at their best if they want to extend their record for another week.
Tries: Luke Minors, Rob Parker, Matt Young, George Taylor, Ed Forshaw x 2
Conversions: Gareth Stoppani x 3