Cambridge 14 Old Elthamians 25
They’ve not yet hit the heights of last season. Not by a long stretch. But there were signs in a much better second half performance at Volac Park on Saturday, that Elthamians are beginning to get into their stride.
They still conceded too many needless penalties and in an erratic first half display they turned over the ball too easily, but overall this was a hard-earned and deserved victory against a much improved and tenacious Cambridge side.
OEs were indebted to two outstanding performances from back row duo Mike Kovacic and captain Hamish Barton. Kovacic (pictured), in particular, stole the show. Dominant and powerful in the tackle, the Australian flanker’s exceptional workrate around the park and energy at the breakdown, as well as his running commentary at every break in play, served as a rallying point for Elthamians whenever their tempo threatened to drop off.
The Old Boys got off to a dream start with a little over 60 seconds on the clock. Tom White’s kick-off was knocked on by a Cambridge forward and from the resulting scrum, Ollie Claxton darted down the blindside before feeding Bryan Hotston to sprint 20 metres and touch down in the corner.
It was simple and unexpected from a side who are notoriously slow starters. But any hopes Elthamians had of kicking on and building on an early lead, were quickly dashed by a lively and uncompromising Cambridge side who took the game to the visitors for much of the opening 40 minutes.
They took just five minutes to respond in kind. After a catch and drive from a line-out in the OEs 22, winger James Martin burst through in midfield to touch down under the posts. Ben Penfold added the conversion.
After the excitement of the opening exchanges, the remainder of the half was something of anti-climax. Industrious Cambridge enjoyed the majority of the possession and poked and probed way at the wall of white shirts without ever causing the Elthamians defence too many problems.
For their part, the visitors encountered difficulties in the scrum early on and without a strong platform to build from, they struggled for continuity and rhythm, not helped by a succession of penalties and unforced errors.
Hooker Jared Saunders had two bullocking runs to put the visitors in a strong attacking position midway through the half, and Hotston broke away down the right for the second time to set up an attacking 5 metre scrum.
But with the penalty count against OEs increasing, inevitably it eventually led to a yellow card being shown to lock Charlie Self for bringing down a maul in his own 22 on 36 minutes.
Cambridge immediately made the visitors pay as a catch and drive from a line out saw hooker Mike Mayhew forced over, with Penfold’s conversion making it 14-5.
But their nine-point advantage lasted just two minutes. Elthamians worked their way back into the Cambridge 22 from the restart with a succession of forward drives before the ever alert Claxton, who looked to have been held up short diving for the try-line, had the presence of mind to touch the ball against the base of the posts for the score.
White’s conversion cut the home advantage to just two points at the break and it proved to be a pivotal moment in the game because Elthamians looked a different side after the interval.
Just five minutes after the restart, they put together the game’s best passage of play, moving the ball through 20 phases with some lovely inter-play from forwards and backs to take play 60 metres into the home 22 before Tom White burst through in midfield to stretch an arm over the try-line. The fly-half converted his own score to give Elthamians the lead for the first time since the opening minute, and from then on they never looked back.
White added a penalty four minutes later after superb work from captain Hamish Barton who hunted down and turned over Cambridge full-back Andrew Henderson after he fielded a high ball.
As the visitors began to gain a firm stranglehold on proceedings through their pack, so it was Cambridge’s turn to concede a succession of penalties. They were penalised for not rolling away from a tackle after strong work from Josh Devine and George Eastwell, and up stepped White again with his second penalty to give Elthamians an 11-point cushion.
And that was pretty much that as Elthamians closed out a scrappy and disjointed final 15 minutes punctuated primarily for stoppages for reset scrums. It effectively deprived them of any chance of going for a fourth bonus point try as the majority of the closing moments were spent in their own half. But ultimately, Elthamians will take a lot of confidence from a vastly improved, if occasionally flawed, second half performance,
Old Elthamians: Brown; Hotston, Koteczky, Eastwell, Perkins; White, Claxton; Concu, Saunders, North, Hosking, Self, Kovacic, Barton, Flashman.
Replacements: Hay (North, 36), Devine (Hosking 38), Morgan (Claxton 64), Morris (Saunders 64), Dockery (Koteczky, 66), Koteczky (Brown 69).
Yellow Card: Self
Referee: Charles Gayther