Thrilling! Stratford and Kenilworth combined to produce a cracker of a game to get the New Year off with a bang. Witnessing the swollen river Avon on the way to the ground, it was a minor miracle that the game was still on; credit to the ground staff at Loxley Lane for their efforts.
The game got off to a tentative start and it was the home side that settled first. The first set scrum of the day provided an ominous marker for the visitors as Stratford exerted real pressure and had the Kenilworth 8 walking backwards across their own goal line for the opening score. An unsuccessful conversion kept the score to 5-0 but the writing was most definitely on the wall.
Kenilworth responded with typical resolve and Kendall , fielding the high ball, offloaded to Wadey who crashed through a number of tackles to set up a promising attack inside the Stratford half. Play stopped for a scrum but again the vsitors’ pack was creaking and were penalised for standing up. The problems at set scrum continued as Kenilworth, on their own ball, could not secure a clean pick-up and Beckett injured himself trying to secure possession. Thankfully the flyer was restored to health but the problems would need to be addressed or it would be a long afternoon.
Kenilworth again responded well and looked to attack at every opportunity. With the phases building, Stratford were penalised at the ruck some 30m out and the ever reliable Kendall pegged the score back to 5-3. By using quick ball and good use of territory, Kenilworth sought to nullify the set-piece advantage; one such move saw Sheehan attempting to stretch the Stratford defence with a cross field kick but the range was marginally out. More good work from the Kenilworth forwards brought play up the Stratford 22 when another penalty gave Kendall a chance to get the visitors’ noses in front. He duly obliged and it was 5-6. The next 10 mins were spent in the Stratford half with Kenilworth looking to put some distance between themselves and their hosts. With the home defence holding firm, Tyler attempted a drop goal to break the deadlock but the damp ground saw him lose his footing but still managed to get his shot off and hit the crossbar! The drama was not yet over; with the loose ball up for grabs, Openshaw looked to touch the ball down in the in-goal area but the reliable Cook at full back for Stratford made it safe.
Injuries were now a major concern for Kenilworth; Becket had earlier sustained a knock and was not 100% and now both Openshaw and Dodd had to be replaced due to knocks. Collett, replacing Dodd in the front row, wasted no time in getting in on the action with a bruising run at the Strafford defence. This set up a prolonged series of phases which promised much but Selby’s pass saw 2 Kenilworth players go for the same ball and the chance was gone. The elements now conspired to produce multiple errors from both sides and neither could make any real headway but when the deadlock was finally broken it was done so in some style! From a lineout some 25m from the Stratford line, Kenilworth secured good possession and Selby found Sheehan in midfield with options on both sides. After a probe down the right channel, play was switched and the ball arrived in Creswell’s hands in midfield. Some classy interplay between the forwards saw the ball moved wide as far as Lane who flicked the shuffle pass to Beckett with sublime timing to put the winger in for Kenilworth’s first try of the afternoon. Kendall added the extras and Kenilworth turned around with a lead of 5-13.
Kenilworth got out of the blocks early in the second half as they sought to keep the scoreboard moving and again the forwards displayed no little skill in their interplay and short passing. Despite their efforts the score remained unchanged since half-time and it was now the home side’s turn to enjoy some prolonged possession. The Kenilworth defence remained solid and a successful penalty is all they surrendered from the prolonged period of Stratford attack but play was almost exclusively in the vistors’ half and as Kenilworth attempted to break out, Jenkinson was shown a yellow for hands in the ruck. With Stratford chipping away at the deficit, the task looked that much harder for the visitors and the next Stratford attack saw them retake the lead with a well-worked converted try down the right. A further penalty to the hosts extended their lead to 18-13 and, with only one score in it, the stage was set for a grandstand finish.
With time running down, Kenilworth pushed a penalty deep into Stratford territory but the ensuing lineout was lost and Stratford cleared their lines; the kick failed to find touch and Hickman collected and immediately looked to counter. Another penalty gave Kenilworth a second bite at a deep lineout ball and this time they got it right; Cresswell right at the heart of the action as he strained every sinew to try and get back on terms. 2 metres out and another penalty to Kenilworth; Creswell opted for the scrum despite the early exchanges being so one-sided in favour of the hosts; ball found Thompson in his new role in the centres and he too surged towards the line. As the ball was moved wide, the attempted pass is slapped down by the Stratford winger and another penalty is awarded. The ball is moved inside and finds Collett who spots a gap close to the posts and smashes over for the score to bring the teams level. Kendall, showing no nerves, slotted the conversion to give Kenilworth the lead with time almost up – breathtaking!
But the drama was not over! From the restart, Stratford took the ball into the Kenilworth half in search of an unlikely win and were awarded a penalty some 20 m out. In such conditions no kick is easy but the angle seemed to favour the kicker and as he addressed the ball an eerie hush descended on Loxley Road. He seemed to strike it well but as the ball arched through the darkening sky it veered left of the upright and the chance was gone. The whistle to end the game finally sounded at almost 4 o’clock as there had been a number of lengthy stoppages; both teams had given their all in this enthralling contest and the good crowd were not slow in showing their appreciation.
Some key takeaways for Kenilworth from this game include their ability to adapt their game to changing circumstances and an indomitable spirit which never allows them to admit defeat. Despite the early set scrums providing the home side with a big advantage it was this very phase of play that provided Kenilworth with the platform for their winning score. Despite numerous misfires and penalties in those closing minutes, the Ks stuck to the task and much credit should go to Cresswell who not only took most of the punishment in those bruising runs but also led his team by example and provided the self-belief that was so telling.