The problem with the first game of the season is…it’s the first game of the season! With many of the boys putting on height though not necessarily the kilos now it’s time for some real rugby where the gaps are few and far between and it’s all down to technique and hard work rather than the big guys beating up on the small ones and the speed merchants shredding snails. Contested lineouts, rule changes all added to the mix and the question would be which team came better prepared.
A trip to Hammersmith and Fulham RFC is always a joy, M25 Hammersmith Broadway limited parking and pitches which left a lot to be desired last season. The good news was the pitches had grass on them so at least they were safe and playable but a good cut would not have gone amiss as playing in long grass for an extra 10 minutes (30 mins per half rather than the previous 25) would undoubtedly take its toll and test early season fitness levels to the max.
Hammersmith and Fulham of this season were nothing like the team OAs put to bed last season with relative ease. Bolstered by returning players and at least 5 from Union Academy teams, this was going to be a very different ballgame indeed. Nevertheless, OAs came well out of the blocks from kickoff and the forward pack began to boss and dominate the Hammersmith defence. OAs have mastered the art of the rolling maul and having found themselves in the opposition 10metres and well-structured maul pushed towards the line. Tommy L found himself at the back of the maul and touched down for the first points of the season inside 5mins. 0-5. Kicking was difficult for both teams as the kickers required boots with a golf 9 iron to get any distance or height and from out wide it’s even tougher.
At this point perhaps OAs gained some misplaced confidence and rather than keep it simple and straightforward began to play over expensive rugby and generally to poor effect. OAs have always been encouraged to be creative but there is a time and a place and a one try lead against a rapidly improving opposition was not it. OA’s then returning to our strengths of controlled rugby followed by the release of our backs for which they are renowned, we came close to another try from a maul but the ball spilled out with the try line begging.
Hammersmith tactics were very much to stifle the back line and there were slim pickings throughout the game for the backs that were matched against a very impressive 10, 12 & 13 Hammersmith combination. Even when they did get the chance to break some interesting refereeing interpretations and a seeming reluctance to play the advantage meant there was little if any chance to use the width of the pitch. Hammersmith was repeatedly (And Correctly) penalised for being offside at the ruck and this stop start aspect of the game resulted in too many set-piece plays thereafter.
Although OA”s were dominating in the scrum (until we were forced to go uncontested again!!) and imperious in the Line Out but these frequent penalties without advantage played slowed down play, perhaps a team warning and maybe a yellow card would have kept our opposition onside or legal when trying to stop our maul?
As the game got bogged down in the midfield, Hammersmith benefitted from winning a few penalties. From one such penalty a valiant attempt to keep the ball in play from the kick to touch went astray and a chase for the line whilst won by Will, put pressure on the line and eventually they shoved over. 5-5.
Hammersmith scented blood and having been under the cosh for the first part of the match, mounted attack after attack on the OAs line. Eventually, the pressure told and their big ball carriers went over for 10-5.
Halftime could not come quickly enough and OAs welcomed the referee’s whistle as a time to regroup and pull it together for the second half.
The second half followed the pattern of the first half and the forwards were once again required to get OAs the upper hand. The tackling from all of them and their scrabbling for the ball was excellent. A little unfair to single anyone out but Matt, Harvey and Hamish really stepped up to give OAs a further domination of field position and possession.
Another penalty and a good kick for touch enable the pack to drive the ball towards the line, quick ball and Tom L found a bit of space. Somehow Harry picked up Tom’s slam dunk pass from around his ankles and released Will to score and level the scores. 10-10.
Hammersmith kept on pressing and only sterling defence and first up tackling from our back line, in particular, prevented them from taking the lead once more. This was heading for a draw which might have been a fair reflection of a match which was in some many ways an excellent one. But OAs then broke out of defence and then with the line beckoning once more the ref’s whistle went. OAs tapped and went for it and Matt, almost salmon-like dived over and OAs had their noses in front 10-15.
The question now was how much longer before the whistle. Hammersmith went back on the attack and again the forwards and backs all stepped up to put their bodies on the line and hold them out.
The final whistle brought a huge cheer form OAs players and spectators alike but it was more a cheer of relief than one of triumph. This Hammersmith side is a ferocious unit and a different kettle of fish to last season, other teams will find them tough going on this showing provided they can continue to put out the quality of players on display here.
The test of any team is how they adapt in the face of adversity and OAs found a way to win, it wasn’t pretty at times but a win is a win and for that OAs should be grateful and thankful. On the day we dominated field position and created enough chances to win this game by a greater margin but credit should be given to the defensive commitment of our opponents who whilst they struggled to legally contain our forwards were more than a match in the back division
So Match Day 1 over and 4 hard earned points in the bag. We were a bit rusty with some WD40 required over the next week before OAs resume their League challenge against Cheshunt, a side against whom they have struggled to find any rhythm and who present yet another robust physical challenge.