The Neverending Story
By Tom Moore
Two halves which were supposed to be 35mins somehow took 48mins and 52mins to complete making for a tiring game to play and an exhausting one to watch.
With the dust having settled on the regular season on the 6th April as a victory for King’s over Reeds meant that the Wimbledon side finished top of the table, there remained the small matter of the play-off final to resolve. In the intervening weeks the 2XV had played no rugby – Tiffs having declined to play their semi-final – whilst their opponents, Battersea Ironsides, had overcome Mayfair Occasionals in the other SF. During the regular season King’s came out on top twice (18-22 & 21-15) versus their opponents from Earlsfield, the narrow margins in each reflecting the evenly matched nature of the teams. So it was that at 1202 on the main pitch at Cobham RFC referee Ian Pennell ushered the final action of the Conference North season 2018-19 to begin.
From the off the action was by and large even as play yo-yoed either side of halfway, albeit with King’s ahead in boxing parlance ‘on points’ as it was they who appeared to pose the most immediate threat to the scoreboard. Three times in the opening fifteen minutes Battersea were penalised for hanging on the ball in contact, Mr Pennell ultimately issuing the first of several “final warnings” to them for this particular offence, and with the award of that third penalty Neil Williams stepped up to open his account; 0-3. Unfortunately James Brooks succumbed to injury at this point, Pete Wickham into the action in his place to resume his partnership with Will Carter at fly-half.
Stung by falling behind Battersea were quick to seek to assert themselves on the game with their inside centre more than earning his corn on the day as he crashed more than his fair share of ball. Eventually a kickable penalty was awarded, but the attempt at goal was wayward. The boys in green and white continued to press and ultimately a further penalty was awarded together with a trip to the sin-bin for Lloyd Allen for a deliberate knock-on, but when the lineout drive was thwarted the chance was lost. To compound their disappointment from the resulting scrum the Battersea loosehead unwisely decided to throw a punch, but was saved by his own lack of coordination and so was rewarded only with a yellow card and not a red.
Ten fairly insipid minutes followed with both sides thwarted by a combination of their own lack of accuracy and the interruption of the whistle. Twice King’s tried to tap quick penalties to inject some tempo into the proceedings, on both occasions they were called back so a lecture could be dispensed about the laws to the Battersea skipper. In time it was the lively Battersea 12 who broke the deadlock, together with a few tackles along the way, as he crossed close to the posts. The conversion was missed; 5-3.
That try came in the 34th minute of a largely injury free half, but that did not prevent another 14mins being played. During that time King’s were by and large in the box-seat and having surged in to the corner courtesy of a series of breaks – Ian Norman, George Lane and Harry Wakefield to the fore – the penalty count against Battersea once more began to rise. 5m out Barry Williams tapped one of those penalties and dived over the line. He was, of course, pulled back so yet another talking to could be administered. Undeterred, with Battersea having been given the chance to catch their breath and align their defence, he simply repeated the trick as he dipped beneath a maze of arms. Neil Williams made no mistake with the extras.
Both sides had reasons to be encouraged by the first half, King’s may have sought to play the more adventurous rugby but Battersea had dealt with it effectively, albeit not always legally. Similarly King’s had been required to show their mettle in defence, especially in the channels either side of the breakdown where Battersea has shown most appetite for attack. The early exchanges in the second period belonged to King’s as much of the action was played out in the shadow of their opponents' posts. Twice King’s were over the line, but on each occasion were deemed held-up. One of the Battersea players was gracious enough to concede afterwards that at least one of the scores should certainly have been awarded, it was only the positioning of the referee that allowed him the extra time required to manoeuvre a hand under the ball long after it was grounded.
King’s continued to knock at the door and when yet another breakdown penalty was awarded the old boys elected to try and kick the three. Uniquely on the day Neil Williams’ strike was unsuccessful. From the 22 drop out though the ball was swung wide to winger Josh Dhillon who turned his opposite man one way then the other, bursting towards the line before kicking ahead. The ball crept inexorably towards the line and with a Battersea defender seemingly perfectly placed to dot the ball down it was only a cruel bounce that saw it evade his clutches and pop up into the hands of the onrushing Min Seo who recorded his first try for the club. Neil Williams didn’t miss; 5-17.
If ever a score has served as a shot in the arm then this was one such example. Battersea successfully channelled their frustration and energy to produce comfortably their most compelling spell of rugby and a series of battering carries – including one from their skipper & MOM – and then a couple of more cultured ones, saw their outside centre sail clear for a converted try; 12-17. Five minutes later and from a penalty they were once more calling for the tee and when the flags were raised the margin was now down to a single score; 15-17.
Notionally 15mins of the half, and indeed the season, remained; but the torture was never going to be so brief as a further 33mins were found to play in an increasingly turgid encounter. Neither side came close to grasping what was and wasn’t permissible on the day and all gathered were left at times universally baffled and the award of various decisions for perceived infractions. Each break in play was almost invariably accompanied by ‘time off’ for a de-brief and with each such incidence any momentum, not that there ever was much, was lost.
The longer matters went on not surprisingly the more belief appeared to grow amongst Battersea that they would eventually get one shot at goal which was all they required. With King’s defending multiple phases – James Shaw chopping trees aplenty – it looked like the dam wall may have burst when Battersea broke through on the right but Theo Rhodes, showing complete disregard for a shoulder injury which had earlier forced him off, tracked the runner and scythed him down. The cavalry arrived and it was in some ways fitting that Battersea would finish the game penalised for hanging on. Full-back Robin Cumming remembered to tap the ball before thumping it dead and with that the purgatory was over.
In the end the game was a spectacle, but not for the reasons hoped. It was never allowed to flow long enough to be genuinely entertaining and both sides looked more relieved than pleased or disappointed when it ended. Once more the scoreline was testament to evenly matched albeit differing qualities of the teams. Battersea were combative and proud, as ever, and but for two missed kicks could very easily have been lifting the trophy themselves at the end of the day. Our congratulations go to them for an impressive season and no doubt they will once more be a force to be reckoned with when September rolls round.
For King’s it was the second trophy they craved – table toppers and now play-off winners; it was a fitting way to end an extraordinary season for the senior section, double league champions who have set the bar high for every season and King’s side to follow. Man of the Match was awarded by Battersea to prop Matt Scott who produced a tireless performance in the loose and tight phases of the game. All that remains for a hat-trick of silverware is to beat Old Rutlishians in the President’s Barrel final this weekend, but nothing is a given but for sure King’s will want to finish with a bang not a whimper.
Tries: Barry Williams, Min Seo
Conversions: Neil Williams x 2
Penalties: Neil Williams