OEs take title race to the wire
By Jon Edwards
An outstanding first half display secured a vital bonus point victory for Elthamians in their final away game of the season at Silver Leys.
Bishop’s Stortford 19 Old Elthamians 28
Elthamians ensured the National One title race will go down to the very last game of the season with this impressive bonus point victory over old rivals Bishop's Stortford at Silver Leys.
Leaders Ampthill need just one point at bottom club Loughborough Students next Saturday to clinch promotion to the Championship. It looks a formality, but Elthamians can glean some small comfort from the knowledge that they have fought arguably the closest title race in the competition’s history to the bitter end.
This was a fierce and classy performance by the Old Boys against a Stortford side who traditionally have caused them no end of problems in past encounters. Stortford also boast a back three in Joss Linney, Rob Duff and Nick Hankin who are comfortably the most rapid and dangerous in the division.
The terrific trio helped themselves to a try apiece and caused consternation in the OEs defence whenever they received the ball in space. In particular Linney, a pocket, and powerful, rocket on the left wing was outstanding, scoring a quite brilliant individual try out of nothing in the first half and had the crowd on tenterhooks every time he set off at pace. It was credit then to the hard working Elthamians defence which managed to prevent him from adding to his try tally and rushed up so quickly on the kick chase that for the most part Linney and Co were unable to profit from quick ball.
OEs had their own standout performers as well. For the umpteenth time this season, the back row triumvirate of Harry Ledger, Hamish Barton and Ben King worked themselves to a standstill. Their tackle counts and industry at the breakdown allowed Elthamians to control proceedings for long periods of this entertaining contest.
However, it was Stortford who came racing out of the blocks, setting a ferocious early tempo and pinning the visitors inside their own 22.
After only three minutes, livewire full-back Hankin, so often a thorn in Elthamians' side, sprinted away down the right touchline and was brought down just a few metres short of the try-line by a superb try-saving tackle from lock Adam Batt who sustained a leg injury in the process and was to play no further part in proceedings.
It was an early blow for the visitors, although Batt’s replacement Charlie Self went on to enjoy an outstanding afternoon in the engine room. But having soaked up sustained home pressure in the opening exchanges, OEs opened the scoring with their first worthwhile attack of the game on 12 minutes.
Ben Howard’s booming clearance kick to touch sent OEs into the Stortford 22 for the first time and the backs were quick to capitalise, moving the ball left and right before creating space for Tom White to force his way over for the try.
However, in a fast and furious opening quarter with both sides committed to moving through the hands at every opportunity, Stortford hit back quickly with a superb individual try by Linney on 19 minutes. Receiving the ball just inside his own half with seemingly nothing on in front of him, Linney set off on an arcing run down the left touchline before out-stripping the covering OEs defence with devastating acceleration to score by the posts.
It was a score out of nothing but rather than galvanise the home side, it was the Elthamians pack who took a firm stranglehold on proceedings for the remainder of the half.
In the previous week’s clash against Cinderford, the Elthamians scrum had spent most of the afternoon in reverse. Here at Silver Leys, the front row trio of Kieron Scutt, Nathan Morris and Alex Rogers had a field day at scrum time, shunting the Stortford pack back at a rate of knots, allowing scrum-half Rhys Morgan the time and space to poke and probe away at the home defence.
Elthamians extended their lead on 26 minutes, slick hands from the backs releasing Alex Brown down the right touchline and his chip ahead was collected by Kieran Moffat to crash over the try-line.
It was 21-5 at the interval and deservedly so, as Elthamians secured their third try on the stroke of half-time. Having made a mess of the Stortford scrum, OEs were awarded a penalty which White promptly kicked to the corner. From the ensuing lineout, captain Hamish Barton forced his way over from close range.
Director of Rugby Gavin Lach described it afterwards as OEs’ best first half performance of the season and with confidence high they began the second period the way they finished the first. Strong defence on the edge of their own 22 forced a turnover from which the ubiquitous Morgan was able to take play to halfway with a strong run.
The scrum-half enjoyed undoubtedly his finest afternoon in an Elthamians shirt and was at the heart of much of their best work with the ball in hand. So it was apt that the former Wimbledon No.9 secured the crucial fourth try and the bonus point on 50 minutes when he darted down the blindside of another strong scrum on the edge of the Stortford 22.
Leading 28-5 approaching the final quarter, OEs were still wary of the threat posed by Stortford’s back three. And with good reason. Duff pulled a score back for the home side on the hour mark when he scampered inside looking for work, looped around his centres and split the Elthamians midfield wide open before sprinting 50 metres to touch down by the posts.
With 10 minutes remaining, the ever dangerous Linney burst through three tackles down the left flank before being brought down inside the visitors 22 as Stortford enjoyed their best spell of the match since the opening 10 minutes.
As the game entered the dying moments and with Elthamians camped in the home 22, there was still time for one final Stortford flourish to delight the large home crowd. The Old Boys kicked a penalty to the corner before patiently building through the phases in search of a fifth try. However’s White’s attempted kick to the corner was picked off by Sam Winter and the Stortford captain launched a length of the field counter-attack which saw some excellent inter-passing and support work to allow Hankin to touch down by the Elthamians posts.
From Elthamians' point of view it was a sloppy end to what had otherwise been a highly efficient and clinical afternoon's work.
Tries: Linney 18 Duff 58, Hankin 80
Cons: S Coleman 60,80
Tries: White 11, Moffat 24, Barton 39, Morgan 50
Cons: White: 12, 25, 40, 51
Old Elthamians: Howard, Brown, Dockery, Moffat, Hotston, White, Morgan; Rogers, Morris, Scutt, Hosking, Batt, Ledger, Barton, King. Replacements: North, Rudland-Thomas, Self, Claxton, Golledge.
Referee: Joe James