The Old Boys return to the National One title race tomorrow when they entertain Plymouth Albion at College Meadow (kick-off 2pm), having seen their five-point lead at the top of the table wiped out after second placed Ampthill’s emphatic bonus point victory in their rearranged league game against Caldy last Saturday, 59-7.
Traditionally, the rest weeks during the season have done Elthamians no favours - they followed up the November break with a 13-13 draw at home to Ampthill, then a disappointing 41-26 defeat at Darlington Mowden Park after Christmas.
With just seven games of the season remaining and the title race still wide open, every point is absolutely vital and Elthamians cannot afford to slip up against a dangerous Plymouth side.
But Howard believes a weekend off from the pressures of league rugby will have done the squad a power of good.
“I think the break came at a great time,” OEs head coach said. “We had played seven tough games in a row and the break gave all the players and management time to refresh both mentally and physically.
“We are so far on from where we’ve been in previous years and the squad are so focused on our aims, very little needs to be done as a coach to ensure we are in right mindset. It’s not as if we had a complete week off last week - Tuesday we had a relaxed football night just to keep things ticking over; on Thursday the squad went up town to a gym for a training session and then out for a curry together afterwards. And on Saturday morning we had a very focused, sharp and intense training session. So we are in a good place.”
However, Howard is wary of the threat posed by an in-form Plymouth side who have bounced back from an uncharacteristically slow start to the season to win eight of their last 10 games.
“They are playing very well at the moment with I think only one or two losses since Xmas,” he said. “So we know they are a very dangerous, strong side. They are very physical but they also aren’t afraid of throwing the ball around, and they have some very good players and also some talented youngsters, so we know we have to be on top of our game.”
Elthamians have won two of the three meetings between the two clubs with the other drawn, but the pair have only ever been separated by a single score.
In the most recent meeting at a rain-soaked Brickfields in November, OEs edged a tight contest 19-15 thanks to a superb goal-line stand in the last five minutes. “To go to a place as tough as Plymouth and hold out like that, especially in the conditions, was a pivotal moment in the season,” Howard said. “Plymouth were fighting for their lives that day and threw the proverbial kitchen sink at us, but our scrum and defence were superb.”
OEs are on their hottest winning streak of the season currently, having won their last six games. In their last two fixtures against Esher and Chinnor, they were forced to rely on late tries to grind out the bonus point win, and Howard believes important lessons have been learned from last season.
“I think those games are just an example of how fit we are as a squad now and how the way we play tires out defences,” Howard said, “which means we can kill teams off in the last 10 minutes. I think this is what all the best teams in many sports do. The important thing is staying in the game when you haven’t got momentum, so you’re in a position to strike when the time comes. This is what we did particularly well against Chinnor. If we hadn’t given so many penalties away against Esher we would have beaten them much more comfortably.
“As I’ve said a few times recently we are very good now at seeing out important periods - just before half time and at the end of games.“
Old Elthamians v Plymouth Albion kicks off at 2pm at College Meadow this Saturday.
Updated 13:33 - 1 Mar 2019 by Jon Edwards