For one week only you’ll receive my recollections of Saturday afternoon, our leader having jetted off on an illicit diamonds and fire arms trading trip in the sub-continent. It should also be noted that the reporter often finds that large periods of the game pass him by as he either has his face in the dirt or engaged with the opposition hooker’s arm pit. Thus if any moment of brilliance have been missed, apologies are given.
The game couldn’t have been played in more surreal surroundings, those who had to get the tube having had to trek through a maze of monotonous London post-war semis only to arrive at an immaculately even but vast pitch on the lawn of a once grand estate house. It was remarked that the setting gave the game an English public school feel, which is apt as for the first 20 minutes when the London French received something of a lesson. Although Old Merchant’s rugby could only be described as functional, the point that can’t be lost is that they showed up ready to play from the first whistle. A recurring theme to our recent engagements has been our lack of fire, cohesion and commitment in the opening quarter. This is something we really need to work on, especially away from home.
Old Merchants used forwards positioned behind their proficient No. 10 to good use, often making good yards and then capitalising on our unorganised realignment to capture further territory. Straight from the kick off a penalty for taking the man out in the air (guilty) allowed them to kick down towards our 22. For the first 5 minutes we were almost exclusively camped close to our line. With our defence under pressure a misplaced clearance and slow follow up allowed Merchants to use their hands and superior numbers to make the first converted score within 3 minutes. And so it followed, with another score only a couple of minutes later again the result of Merchants running strong into the first contact and then exploiting our own lack of communication to fill the holes. 14-0 within the first five minutes means you’re always going to be up against it. In the words of our own supporter Mr Mark James ‘I was worried for you guys’.
Despite some strong tackling from both of our flankers and turnover ball as a result we still couldn’t seem to break the shackles of the journey and escape our own half. A chip over from their leggy (and mouthy) scrum-half resulted in the 3rd score, due principally to poor communication from the back three, or indeed from an aware forward falling back to assist a team mate. An extremely unlucky bounce allowed their oncoming winger to profit, and another conversion to follow. Things now looked pretty break, but after a few encouraging words from Mr. Vivian and Kelly the French returned to the half way line with a little more belief. With the scrum beginning to monopolise thanks to excellent drive from the seconds and the strength of Julien and Ginsberg we started to work our way back into the game. The fact that Merchants had little in terms of set piece strength only showed that this was a game we should not have lost in the way we did. An excellent interception from our no.7 (Ben) who then dashed 30m before being hauled down showed the signs of our second half revival. However, from what I recall a further mistake allowed Merchants in for their 4th converted try and with it our genuine hope of any reward in terms of league points. Too often kicks on the gargantuan pitch did not find touch allowing us time to reshape (although the ball was soft and difficult to propel any distance). For several points the game became extremely loose with positions scattered as a result, which we shouldn’t have allowed to happen.
That was by no means the end of though as the French then managed to play for 55 minutes with coherence and passion. Admittedly, Merchants with the game won now began to make simple mistakes which had not been present in their game for the first 15. Not assisted by the spongy ball, which often found its way to ground the second period never seemed to have more than three or four minutes uninterrupted play. For the final 40 the highlights included some elusive running from Remi, endless hard fought turnover balls won through solid tackling and good bridging and persistence by the second man at the breakdown. The back row all worked hard in this regard. Jack also made numerous good carries for yards. Stephane and Tsz hitting in strong and despite isolation working hard to ensure possession was retained. The scrum’s eight man effort meant Merchants had to live with virtually no ball from this platform with ball won against the head the majority of the time. Indeed the closest we came to scoring saw five pick and go to try and drive over the line, but only for Merchant’s to infringe. One excellent drive was held up and despite winning the resulting scrum their scrum half was able to interrupt at the back. In the same passage the ref could and probably should have given a penalty try as the scrum rolled towards the line. This was again testament to an extremely solid front five and despite the high number of knock-ons we simply had ‘em up front.
Geoff began to organise the fringe well and our pick and go efforts, he also made a strong run cleaning up from a line-out resulting in three floored tacklers but meant he also had a sore head for the remainder of the match after a short siesta. Mr Kelly left the pitch after 65 minutes haven given everything, aggressive defence and shoves more akin to a JCB. PO, then moved to lock with Ben coming on to play well to latch onto efforts in midfield. Paul fielded kicks well and was always keen to return the ball in hand. Some excellent scramble defence from the backs ensured our line was not cut again, and a certain try saving movement saw Mark James dive full length to tap tackle their winger who thought he had a canter to the line.
Ultimately this was a game that was full of effort but we let ourselves down in the first 20, so really it meant it was for no result. We have to switch on from the start. When these guys return to Barnes we should give them a far sterner test and I saw nothing in their ranks that justified a 28-0 score line.
Ben (… who honours his first match with colours with a hard-fought Man of the Match distinction).