After the skills and thrills of England’s win over the All Blacks last Saturday morning, there was different fare on offer that afternoon on the back pitches at Richmond Athletic Ground where Old Tonbridgians (OTs) hosted Farnham in Saturday’s round of London 2 South West. Non-stop rain, a strong cross-field wind and OTs playing in a change strip blagged off fellow old boy’s side Wellingtonians ensured this would be no spectacle. Nevertheless, Farnham pinched the win 12-18.
OTs would say they did not make the most of their dominance of possession and field position. The Farnham Faithful, while humming the tune to the “Great Escape”, were once again in fulsome praise of their team’s dogged defence.
With talisman No8 Robbie Mitchel and ace try poacher Gabe Hills injured and watching from the side line, the Farnham starting XV side had a different look. There was the welcome return of Andy Naisbitt at prop - but perhaps a little early as the Farnham pack were shoved backwards in the initial series of the many set scrums. His fellow prop Jules Joris made his tackles and carried as effectively as ever. However, Ben Brown at hooker struggled to find his line-out target and with Marco Azevedo starting in unfamiliar territory in the row alongside Ben Adams, the set piece simply did not function – at least in the first half.
Thus, with a great deal of ball, OTs mounted attack after attack and were it not for the work round the fringes from flankers Comley and Kidd, they would have racked up a score. No 8 Liam Welsh won his podium point by carrying hard, tackling hard and competing furiously on the deck to spoil many an OTs attack.
The back line also had a different look. Skipper and regular No 9 Ollie Brown was on unfamiliar ground at full back while Harry West fulfilled the role at scrum half. Ollie was secure under the high ball and made his tackles and when the team realigned in the second period and he returned to scrum half, there was some of the zip back in the Farnham attack.
The familiar pairing of the Salmon brothers, Toby and Michael at 10 and 12 provided solidity in the mid-field. Toby made the most of the scraps he was given and relieved a great deal of pressure with his kicks out of hand and, crucially, racked up the points from the tee. Michael as ever, with little opportunity to attack was fierce in defence – too much so according to the ref who yellow carded him for dangerous play in the second half - a decision that left all 30 players as well as the touchline somewhat bemused.
Dec Kavanaugh at outside centre opened the scoring for Farnham. An early, and subsequently rare, foray by Farnham into the OT 22 was kicked clear by their full back to Reece Stennett. He took the ball just outside the Farnham 22 on the left wing. With time and space to pick his line, he used all his running skills and pace to carve the OT defence open and as the cover tackle arrived, he popped the ball to Kavanaugh, running the perfect support line, to go in out wide on the right. Toby Salmon missed the difficult conversion into the wind. 0-5.
While the OT forwards dominated the set piece, a vital advantage on such a wet and windy day, the Farnham backs always looked more dangerous with break outs from their own 22 being the main attack weapon. One such flowing Farnham attack was halted illegally and from the tee Toby Salmon extended the lead to 0-8 after just 10 minutes play.
But the signs up front were ominous. OTs have the territory and a succession of pick and drives by their bulky forwards took them over out wide. The conversion was missed. Soon after, the Farnham pack concede a penalty at the set scrum and OTs kicked to the corner from where they pummelled over from the lineout maul. The conversion was good and its 12-8 to the home side as the half time whistle blows.
Early in the second half, Farnham won a kickable penalty. However, the diminutive posts on this back pitch make it hard for the touch judges to determine if Toby Salmon’s effort was good and after much discussion, it is determined a miss. Salmon M is dismissed for ten minutes soon after and Farnham are under the cosh. With fourteen men, they defend from their five-meter line heroically.
OTs freely admit they don’t train. At this level, that could be a mistake no matter the amount of talent in the side. Fitness and drills lay the foundation for good decisions and poor decision making from OTs saw them squander a number of chances.
Thanks, in the main, to Toby Salmon’s accurate and deep clearance kicks, Farnham found themselves in the OT half and for once in the game allowed their attack drills to do the talking. Salmon T wriggled and writhed his way through to put the OT defence on the back foot. More eager runners made ground and from the base of the rucks Brown fizzed the ball first right and then left creating the space for Azevedo to power over. Toby S made sure of the conversion and Farnham had their noses in front 12-15.
As well as scoring his try, Azevedo was moved to the front row to replace Naisbitt and some order was restored to the set scrum with Connor Hayes on for an excellent shift in the row. The Farnham coaches brought on the other “finishers” to see out the game. Sam Woodhams on for Andrew Kidd at 6 and Dave Flower in at centre for Kavanaugh.
Despite the fresh legs, OTs kept the pressure on and Farnham’s defence continued to be tested. However, another break-out put Farnham on the OTs 22 – this time by No 14 Tom Cerullo, who like Stennett on the other wing, kept the OT cover defence on their toes all game. Penalty for a high tackle and Toby Salmon stretched the Farnham lead from the tee to 12-18. This set up a tense last few minutes of the game as OTs strove for the converted try to snatch the game back. But the Farnham D held.
The game was not a pretty sight, but Farnham retaining the position at the top of London 2SW is. That is two games on the bounce where they were not at their best, but scraped the win. Surely the sign of a strong team!
Reece Stennett – 3, scintillating running and tremendous tackling
Toby Salmon – 2, kept things in order when there was little order about.
Liam Welsh – 1, cleaned up from the base, made inroads going forward and fought hard all match.
This team is backed by a strong senior squad. On the day, the Vikings (2nd XV) beat neighbours Camberley 20-17 and the Warriors (3rd XV) won comfortably at Lightwater 12-37. The evening before, the Vets overcame Esher Vets under lights by 19-14. Unfortunately, the Barbarians’ (4th XV) Hampshire league opposition from Ventor could not fulfil the fixture and conceded the walk over. So that’s five from five for the senior Black and Whites.