On a beautiful crisp winter afternoon the term “dream start” was quickly in use. Kenilworth’s first attack seemed to have stalled with Tom Kendal being hauled down on the left side of the middle of the pitch but quick service from scrum-half Selby led to the ball being moved between forwards and backs to the right wing where Niall Beckett put real pace on the ball. This slick series of moves eventually put Jack Gibson over for the day’s opening try with only two minutes on the clock; Kendall added the extra two to give Kenilworth a 7-0 lead. Almost directly from the restart, Stratford advanced towards the Ks line and eventually won a penalty in, what seemed an eminently kickable position. When the kick was missed the omens seemed good for what would have been a critical win for the home side. The opening half-hour was punctuated with a number of promising Kenilworth attacks which stalled for a number of reasons but also revealed some worrying trends which would eventually contribute to the result. Penalties, ruck and lineout proved the key worries but it must also be said that a series of key injuries disrupted the Ks and forced a reorganisation of both forwards and backs; despite this Kenilworth produced some good rugby, particularly in defence.
On the half-hour Kenilworth produced a fine series of moves to extend their lead. A series of attacks close to the Stratford line eventually led to George Trafford taking the ball through the Stratford defensive line and, as he was tackled just before the line, produced the slickest of offloads to the ever-present Bobby Thompson to put the No.8 in close to the posts. Again Kendall added 2 to give Kenilworth a 14-0 lead and all seemed well (with ironic symmetry, this was a repeat of the lead Kenilworth established during the away fixture at Stratford in late September).
Stratford came thundering back with a probing attack instigated by full-back Joe Cook who had a fine afternoon (as he did in the corresponding fixture earlier in the season). The attack looked destined to end in a try under the posts but a huge effort by Phil Dickson prevented a certain score. This was the beginning of a period of pressure on the Kenilworth line but defensively they were up to the task with the only reward for Stratford coming in the form of a penalty shortly before half-time making the score 14-3 at the interval.
The second half opened as the first had ended with Stratford pressurising the Kenilworth line but the defensive line held strong. The pressure was relived after a break out by Kenilworth led to some fine work by Becket brought the Ks to within 10 metres of the Stratford line but again the developing ruck was whistled dead with the ensuing scrum going to Stratford. Again the penalty count was mounting against the home side and Stratford came very close to their first try after a series of attacks close to the Kenilworth line but the ball carrier was held up. The tension of the game produced a flare-up between the players under the Kenilworth posts and after a lecture to both captains ended with a Kenilworth penalty to relive the pressure. But from the ensuing lineout Kenilworth’s problems continued with possession being turned over to Stratford who proceeded to mount another series of attacks. An infringement by Jack Gibson in defence led to the referee issuing a yellow card and Stratford were determined to make the extra man count. From the ensuing series of play they touched down for their first try of the game but with the poor kicking form of fly-half Brain continuing they could not add the extras so the score remained at 14-8.
Back came Stratford after the restart in another series of attacks and it was at this stage that another key injury befell the home side. Phil Dickson, who had produced a strong defensive game, lay motionless after one such attack and after an appropriate delay was helped from the field with his left eye rapidly closing. Having lost Flowers and Tyler earlier in the game and with the three-quarters being re-jigged 2 or 3 times this was clearly not helping the Ks cause and Stratford mounted another attack which saw the ball spun wide for a score in the left hand corner. Again Brain missed the conversion but Stratford had now moved to within a point at 14-13.
The momentum was definitely with the visitors and a series of errors by the Ks gave Stratford a lineout close to the Kenilworth line. It seemed that Kenilworth had contained the ensuing drive but a neat flick put the ball in the Stratford winger’s hands to put him over in almost the same spot as the previous score. Stratford now took the lead for the first time in the match but with the conversion again missed, that lead was restricted to 4 points.
In the dying minutes, Kenilworth tried frantically to claw back the advantage but to no avail. This is a young side and some key decision-makers had already left the fray through injury, some of the decisions in those final minutes might have benefited from the presence of older heads. This was a very disheartening loss for this group of players but it is vital that they learn from it. The next month brings a series of tough fixtures which will define the season and the spirit and camaraderie that this group of players have developed will stand them in good stead for the challenges ahead.