OEs dropped in their tracks
By Jon Edwards
Elthamians' title hopes took a massive blow in the top-of-the-table clash at close rivals Ampthill on Saturday as they were left to regret several missed chances.
Ampthill 36 Old Elthamians 6
From the sublime to the submerged.
Elthamians, so clinical and measured in the weeks leading up to this eagerly anticipated National One showdown, saw their heady title aspirations reduced to rubble by a powerful Ampthill performance on Saturday.
This emphatic five-try defeat at the hands of their closest title rivals, leaves OEs in last chance saloon. With just five National One matches remaining and now five points behind the new leaders, they need to pick up victories in every one of their remaining fixtures and hope that Ampthill slip up.
On the evidence of Saturday, that looks a stretch because Ampthill were outstanding, especially in defence. They played with an intensity and bruising physicality which knocked Elthamians out of their stride with the ball in hand particularly in the second half. They were also absolutely ruthless in taking their chances in the red zone when they presented themselves which proved to be the single biggest difference between the two sides.
And in young Sam Hudson, they had the afternoon’s standout player. The blond haired flanker was a force of nature in the home back row and enjoyed one of those afternoons when the ball seemed to follow him like a magnet. His workrate around the park and tireless energy at the breakdown was a constant thorn in Elthamians’ side.
And yet, in a breathless, tactical, titanic battle at a wind-battered Dillingham Park, the Old Boys were their own worst enemies. They will look back on two or three gilt-edged try-scoring chances which they failed to take at crucial stages of this hard-fought contest which ultimately were to cost them dearly.
“We had opportunities but didn’t take them,” OEs DoR Gavin Lach admitted afterwards. “It was disappointing to drop the ball in the act of scoring three times. You cannot win against opposition as good as Ampthill if you don’t take your chances.”
No such problems for the home side who, sparked by the promptings of fly-half Josh Sharp, seemed to come away with points every time they made a foray into the visitors 22. And the clinching scores, the heavy blows came deep into the final quarter when they had worn down a battling but dispirited OEs side.
As expected, in front of a season’s best home crowd, it was Ampthill who came storming out of the blocks from the first whistle, forcing Elthamians to concede three penalties in quick succession inside their 22. From the third of these, full-back James Pritchard kicked to the corner setting up the lineout position from which prop Matt Collins was able to crash over in the corner from close range after only five minutes.
It was a dream start for the home side and it got even better just four minutes later. Working the ball patiently through multiple phases, fly-half Josh Sharp shipped the ball down the line to Sam Hanks just inside OEs territory. There seemed to be no immediate danger for the visitors, but the centre suddenly stepped inside off his left foot and wrong-footed the Elthamians midfield with a jinking run and sprinted 50 metres unopposed to the posts.
Behind 12-0 inside the first 10 minutes having barely got their hands on the ball and with the opposition already with their tails up, Elthamians were very much under the cosh.
But to their credit, their forwards collectively rolled up their sleeves and proceeded to force their way back into the contest, monopolising possession and territory for much of the second quarter.
Joe Carlisle cut the deficit with two penalties on 17 and 25 minutes and even when they were reduced to 14 men when centre Max Wilkins was shown a yellow card for an illegal tackle at the breakdown, OEs continued to pen the home side in their own 22.
Elthamians had their chances during their best spell of the match, George Perkins knocking on almost over the line and Ollie Claxton breaking clear from a quick tapped penalty in the home 22, only to be called back for not starting from the mark.
The Ampthill defence, outstanding throughout, twice forced turnovers as the visitors drove to within a few metres of the try-line.
And then a pivotal moment on 35 minutes. As Elthamians battered their way towards the line again from another driven lineout, the ball was moved through six phases before Carlisle’s delayed pass created enough space for Wilkins to dart through the gap. But the unfortunate centre spilled the ball as he crossed the try-line.
A converted try at that stage would have changed the complexion of the contest. Instead, Elthamians somehow managed to find themselves 19-6 down at the interval as Ampthill promptly went up the other end of the field and with their first foray into the OEs 22 since the 19th minute, No.8 Maama Molitika forced his way over from a driven lineout.
It was a crushing blow on the stroke of half-time but OEs made a storming start to the second period knowing that the next score would be absolutely crucial.
They dominated much of the third quarter but squandered another chance to open their try-scoring account on 50 minutes when Dom Lespierre failed to hold on to Joe Carlisle’s perfectly weighted cross-field kick over the try-line.
And Ampthill were quick to take advantage of Elthamians’ profligacy. In their first worthwhile attack of the half on 60 minutes they were awarded a penalty as the visitors were caught offside at a ruck. Pritchard made no mistake with the resulting kick at goal taking the home side clear by more than two scores.
Moving into a disjointed final quarter punctuated by stoppages for treatment to injured players and a succession of penalties as the big hits and bruising collisions began to take their toll on both sides, it was Ampthill who began to turn the screw against an increasingly frustrated OEs side.
On 75 minutes, they secured the all-important bonus point for a fourth try when replacement prop Ralph Adams-Hale bulldozed his way under the posts from close range.
With a minute of normal time remaining, and Elthamians again down to 14 men following a yellow card to replacement hooker Jay Rudland-Thomas, the home side put the seal on an impressive and thoroughly deserved victory when Sharp’s chip on the edge of the OEs 22 bounced kindly for centre Ollie Morris to touch down.
Tries:- Collins (5), Hanks (9), Molitika (40), Adams-Hale (75), Morris (79)
Conversions:- Pritchard (10, 40, 70), Sharp (76, 80)
Penalties:- Pritchard (60)
Penalties:- Carlisle (17, 25)
Old Elthamians: White, Lespierre, Golledge, Wilkins, Perkins, Carlisle, Claxton; L Brown, Morris, North, Hosking, Self, Ledger, Barton, King. Replacements: Rogers, Rudland-Thomas, Kovacic, Morgan, Dockery.
Half-time: Ampthill 19 Old Elthamians 6
Referee: Alexander Thomas