Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said that a week was a long time in politics; yesterday Kenilworth proved the adage by going from the worst to the most outstanding performance of the season in the same period.
OLs had done an amazing job in getting the 1st team pitch ready to play after a week of snow and rain that saw the pitch underwater as late as Thursday morning! The weather on match day was sunny and mild and a large crowd had gathered in anticipation of this clash between first and second in Midlands 2 West.
The kick-off was not taken cleanly by Ks and from the resultant play OLs were awarded the first penalty of the game with only a minute gone; the kick was well wide but clearly some early nerves needed settling. From the restart OLs mounted their first backs move of the day and it was well marshalled by the Kenilworth defence with Ols penalised for holding on.
First set scrum of the day indicated no significant advantage for either side and a good touch finder by Sheehan produced the first lineout of the day and the first indication that the visitors had a slight edge. Good work by Nicholson and Lane at successive lineouts provided good, go-forward ball but penalties brought these promising moves to an end. Kendall collected the clearance kick and launched a Garryowen towards the OLs 15; the ball arrived at the full back at precisely the same time as Kendall who clattered into the tackle. Gibson, first to arrive, turned the full back and the move looked on but Ks were eventually pinged for holding on having reached the 22.
Ks attacks were being stifled by error and officiating but OLs attacks were ended in a more traditional manner; in what was to become a standout feature of the game, Kenilworth’s defence and organisation proved resolute. OLs attempted to vary the point of attack with miss moves, strike runners and loose forwards in wide positions but all were met with rock solid resistance from the visitors. In the loose too, Kenilworth were proving more than a match; Ols attempting to set up a maul were rocked backward s and Ks surged on but the move was whistled dead with Ols winning the put-in. OLs advanced to the Ks 22 but knocked-on and from the ensuing scrum Kenilworth produced a huge drive to disrupt the Ols pack but the ref decided that it was a deliberate attempt to wheel the scrum and awarded OLs a second kickable penalty. The kick fell short and one section of the crowd believed that this was the right outcome.
Apart from two kicks ahead earlier in the half, OLs first presence in the Ks 22 with the ball in hand occurred in the 38th minute of the half – my report of the corresponding fixture at Glasshouse lane had brought derision from the OLs website – this 38-minute statistic alone requires no further explanation on my part.
As the first half drew to a close the OLs prop found him in space on the right flank but Gibson anticipated the move well and bulldozed the much larger man into touch to snuff out the threat. This play was a cameo of the events of the first half; despite giving away something in size (and league position) to their opponents, Kenilworth had defended like lions. More worryingly, Kenilworth had produced the greater attacking threat but had failed to convert these chances into points due to their own errors or penalties.
With the temperature dropping noticeably, the second half got underway with Kenilworth taking the restart and began a good drive with Renowden securing good ball to set up a move between himself, Nicholson and Gibson but OLs defend well. Lane, who had a fine afternoon, now left the field with a rapidly closing eye to be replaced by Flowers. Ks move the ball wide again and a clever nudge by Sheehan gives a lineout 10m out from the OLs’ line. Todd produces a great take to set up the attack and Gibson takes the ball on in a promising move which is brought to a halt by a defensive handling offence in the ruck. The penalty was in a kickable spot and an hour after this game started, Kendall duly obliged with the first points of the day.
From the restart OLs pushed on but good anticipation by Renowden saw him kick a grubber ahead which saw him in a foot-race with the Ols winger for the line but the defender did very well to secure the ball and clear his lines. Some off-the-ball activity had been building and 10 minutes into the second half the ref took action; a yellow was shown to each of the latest protagonists and both sides were down to 14. The next 10 minutes were mostly stalemate with neither side able to make headway against resolute defences. As the sin bin period ended Kenilworth were awarded another penalty which looked within Kendall’s range but the kick fell short and in a game of close margins one wondered what impact this might have on the outcome.
Kenilworth looked to make immediate amends by running at OLs from the restart and, again, the weapon of choice ws the grubber kick. This one was aimed at Beckett screaming up the right flank but the ball was too close to the touchline and the ball drifted out. Ks secured the lineout and again headed for the line but errors again cost them dear with a knock on giving OLs the put-in 10 m out from their line. Ols clear the danger and the next phase of the game was almost exclusively in the middle third but the deadlock was broken when Ks looked to break out from their own 22 through Beckett but are penalised for holding on. The spot was in front of the posts 25m out and parity looked sure to be restored but the ball struck the right upright and Thompson, alert to the danger, gathered the rebound and set Beckett free to clear.
With time running out OLs won a scrum in midfield and looked to make up for the penalty miss but Kenilworth disrupted the scrum and won possession through Renowden who sends the ball out wide to find Lowthian who charged up the left wing but was brought down 10m out. Ols eventually found touch and looked to mount their next attack but the referee blew the final whistle and a famous victory was secured.
The talk before the game was of a glaring weakness in midfield with the usual suspects all injured or out of position – nothing could have been further from the truth. Purewal and Holton punched way above their weight in this outstanding team effort. But this is no game to apportion individual glory – this was a group of men determined to succeed for each other who remained steadfast in their resolve to defeat an equally determined opponent. To do this on the back of such a poor showing the previous week speaks volumes of the character of the group and the ability of the coaching staff to turn defeat into a positive.
And what of the match itself and the paucity of scores? There are those that advocate Rugby Union “adapting” the product by devaluing the scrummage and making the game more “open”. This would involve players morphing into a “standard” shape and size as has happened at Rugby League. Super 15 Rugby has an emphasis on running rugby and an “elastic” interpretation of the offside and forward pass would seem to encourage that (the near-empty stadia at most of those games says something!). Union’s unique offering is that players of all shapes and sizes can make equal contributions to the team and the use and impact of such players provides an endlessly changing spectacle. Yesterday we saw two teams at the top of their games, in trying conditions, give everything they had for the cause and produce a most enthralling contest. If you want end-to-end scoring from start to finish there’s always the NBA. If you want commitment, skill, resolve and a dogged refusal to accept defeat support your local Rugby Union team!