Match Report: London Cornish v Winchester: Saturday 24th January 2015
London Two South West by DoR Dickon Moon, photos by Ben Gilbey
London Cornish leapfrogged Winchester to take back 2nd spot in London Two South West and close to within four points of leaders Tottonians. The 20-13 win completed the double over their title rivals, the victory underpinned by a dominant set piece display, finally wearing down the Hampshire visitors in an intense top of the table battle on a cold, breezy, but sunny winter’s day at the REMPF. The match was watched by a number of coaching teams from other clubs in the division, and by a number of the London RFU hierarchy.
Photo – No 8. Mark Osei-Tutu breaks from the scrum
The Exiles went into the game bereft of loosehead prop Mike Bond, back ups Oli Low and Hamish Cuming, both first choice centres Craig Chatley and Luke Spells, and last seasons top try scorer Rich Skinnard. To compound the issue, Cornish lost Nigel Johnston in the warm up, forcing them to blood 22 year old centre Joe Donnelly, whilst at full back Josh Allison also made his starting debut for the first team. If that was not enough, ‘The Exiles’ also overcame the loss of talismanic no 8 Mark Osei-Tutu before half-time in this game.
The opening exchanges saw little difference between the two sides, as a series of attacking forays, and handling errors saw possession bobbing and weaving between the sides, as both attempted to steady any early game nerves. From the off it was clear that Cornish were dominant in the tight, and on 6 minutes an early shove saw due reward for this dominance, Allison striking perfectly down the middle of the pitch with a penalty from 35 metres to dissect the posts for 3-0. The stranglehold Tom Lloyd, Will Carew-Gibbs and Skip Dave Theobald had in the match was not lost on the watching visiting coaching teams, nor was the way ‘The Exiles’ attacked the visitors lineout and drove them back with rolling mauls.
Despite going behind, the visitors started the stronger, with the back division offering numerous attacking sorties, running great lines of pace and strength, and the ensuing pressure saw a Cornish forward commit a high tackle after 12 minutes. Winchester’s Connor Breen was handed a free kick at goal from the edge of the twenty-two, only for the scrum half to misjudge his effort on the wind. Two minutes later, Breen would ensure that the same mistake was not made twice, and struck from a similar distance and angle, to level the scores at 3-3.
With the clock approaching 20 minutes, and with Winchester having coughed up their opening 5 lineouts under pressure from the Cornish twin towers of Ben Ievers and Harry Somers, possession was handed to the Black and Gold. The hosts had so far struggled to get close to the opposition twenty two, thanks to strong defence, so the boot came to their rescue one more. Following a big hit on Somers from his opposite number, and an ensuing disagreement, a penalty awarded a chance for Allison to strike at goal from some distance, and the full back made it two kicks from two, to take the score to 6-3.
Photo – lock Ben Ievers awaits the ball lineout time
Winchester responded as before with a number of exciting runs from the backs, and equally supported with pace and strength from their forwards, but home defences held firm, and despite getting into the 22 on a number of occasions, the visitors found the door firmly shut by fine scrambling defence, Matt Hakes making a particularly important steal on his 22 and joined in the work on the floor by back rows Andrew Eustace and Chris Anstey. The Exiles found similar frustrations at the other end of the field, but were rarely able to venture anywhere near Winchester’s twenty-two until the 35th minute. Driving Winchester back at a scrum, Cornish 9 Rob Healey spun the ball to wing Joe Skinnard, him rounding his man, and sprinting down the left flank to draw the full back and send Osei-Tutu crashing across the whitewash for the fifteenth time in as many games (see photos from game). Allison adding the extras to extend the lead to 13-3, Cornish having taken points from every occasion that had come their way and defended superbly. Osei-Tutu was injured in the act of scoring, and could take no further part, Truro born Ben Devonport on at 8, him an even greater physical specimen than the man he replaced!
Cornish tails were now firmly up and continued to scrap their way up the field. However, Sir soon called for the warmth of the dressing room, and the Exiles found themselves ten points to the good.
As play resumed following an intense first forty minutes, time would tell as to which of the two groups of gladiators would last the distance and prevail in an arena dominated by high swirling winds and a blinding winter sun, and it seemed that, at least up until the hour mark, the winner could not be called, as first one then the other side gained the momentum.
Again breaks of pace, but perhaps with not as much strength as in the first half, put the Black and Gold defence under pressure, with them conceding a penalty right in front of the own posts. Breen placed a straight forward kick between the uprights to reduce the deficit to seven points. 13-6 after 43 minutes.
Five minutes later, Allison had the chance to increase the lead from 30 metres, as a Winchester forward was pinged for going off his feet at the breakdown, but his well struck effort into a stiffening breeze fell agonisingly short.
The visitors by now sniffed an opportunity to exert further pressure, and a change of tactics saw them make changes of personnel, kick for the corner and use the pack to drive back the Exiles’ defence, as it was becoming increasingly evident that their running game was struggling to bear fruit. By the 56th minute, the greengrocer finally delivered.
Having been under pressure with his throwing throughout, hooker Chris Searle threw quick and low to the front man. From there, numerous breaks and phases created a gap for Alex Lee to go over the line by the posts. Breen converted with ease to level the scores and put the game on a knife edge. Within a minute of the equalising score, Winchester had an opportunity to take the lead from 30 metres at the angle, but Breen fired his kick just wide of the left post.
However, act two of the half would see Cornish wrest back control, as the hosts combined crafted playmaking from fly half Phil Dale and his fellow backs, with an increased supply of ball created by forward dominance as Winchester tired from the relentless nature of a classic Cornish performance up front. This pressure began to tell in the concession of a series of penalties, as rolling mauls sapped energy and conceded field position. The Exiles grew in confidence and for the next fifteen minutes, pressure was applied with a diet of kicking for the right hand corner, line outs, driving runs and driving mauls. To a Cornishman, there is little more beautiful a sight than that of a driving maul at full steam and those watching could gorge on the tactic as the visitors set piece cracked. That they held on for so long is testament to Winchester’s defence, but on the 3 occasions they turned the ball over they failed to find touch with clearing kicks and found themselves right back where they came from. The referee’s patience snapped as a blatant attempt to collapse the maul 10 metres out was spotted, a yellow card given to the miscreant. On 77 minutes, Winchester’s pack could hold no longer, and with another Cornish advantage after the visiting hooker tried the same tactic, Allison, Robin Heymann, Dale and Donnelly interchanged passes before finding Somers to crash the ball to 3 out and find his scrum half Healey, sniping as all good 9’s do, waltzing across the line with aplomb to place the ball under the posts. Allison made it four successful kicks from five to renew the seven point advantage at 20-13.
Photo – Centre Matt Hakes looks for a break
Winchester made a late surge towards the home twenty-two, only for Cornish to hold firm once more, and with Sir awarding another penalty, the ball was placed into touch for the final whistle.
A delighted Director of Rugby, Dickon Moon, gave his thoughts after the game: “A fantastic result against a strong Winchester side, that had gone ten straight league wins since we beat them at their ground, and to complete the double over them is great. I was particularly pleased with the last twenty minutes, and with the fact that we have coped with making so many changes, forced on us through a combination of unavailability and injury. We suffered another in the warm up, which meant we had to change our centre partnership, and we gave debuts to two players in the backline today, Josh Allison, and Joe Donnelly, who both acquitted themselves very well.”
“A big result, but I think the race (for promotion) between us, Winchester and Tottonians will still go down to the end of the season. You cannot take an eye off any match in this division, so attention now turns to next week, when thankfully we will have a number of those missing today back in action.”
“We had to win today to ensure that it was still a three horse race for the title, and I think we have done exactly that.”