Above: Try-scorers Andy Wright and Spencer Sutherland celebrate the latter's match-winning effort, completing Esher's remarkable comeback from a 21 point deficit. (Pic: Leo Wilkinson)
LOUGHBOROUGH OLD BOYS HAUNT STUDENTS AS ESHER DIG DEEP
ESHER RUGBY (3) 24
Convs: Wilson (3)
LOUGHBOROUGH STUDENTS (21) 21
Tries: Davis, Harris, Dowsett
Convs: Davis (3)
Click here to watch a re-run of the game, complete with commentry (courtesy of Live Culture)
A game of two halves it most certainly was at Molesey Road, as Esher battled back from 21-0 down to claim a vital win in their pursuit of a top three finish.
Despite enjoying the majority of possession in the opening half, the hosts took three meaty right hooks from the Students as tries from Alex Davis, Gareth Harris and Craig Dowsett opened up a healthy and seemingly insurmountable lead for Loughborough.
Mickey Wilson’s penalty just before half-time, coupled with Jake Albon’s dismissal to the bin for his role in a few fisticuffs were vital in giving Esher something to sweeten their interval drinks with, and they came out full of juice in the second period. Scores from Loughborough alumni in Mike Macfarlane and Andy Wright, as well as one from Spencer Sutherland, gave them a deserved win.
Having endured a tough 2014 in which he had seen his team pick up just two victories before Saturday’s triumph, Ricky Nebbett was able to call on star man Luke Daniels for the first time since he hobbled off in the home defeat against Wharfedale a month previous, whilst there was also a welcome start for Joe Brown.
Sadly, Daniels' comeback was a premature one as he was forced off with not much more than a quarter of the game elapsed and Esher, against the run of play, behind on the scoreboard.
Led by the combative James Campbell, restored to the starting XV after an energetic cameo at the Woodlands last week, the men in black and amber enjoyed large spells with ball in hand but, just as they did on the west coast, were blighted by a spate of unforced errors.
Alex Bibic’s spill a few metres out was the death of the first opportunity of the game and after that early knock-back, through a knock-on, any lingering threat of penetration considerably softened. Albeit they continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession, the Loughborough defence was not overtly stretched or questioned and the encounter quickly became bitty.
The Students forwards were doing a good job of cracking a plethora of seemingly promising Esher moves, with the purple back five in particular making real nuisances of themselves. Quite often when confidence is fragile, lady luck can desert you and many of the home faithful would have been thinking that this might not be their side’s day when Dave Morris’ unit scored from their first foray into the Esher half.
Gareth Harris’ well-timed intercept of a loose, perhaps over-ambitious Esher pass triggered excitement in the clearly dangerous Loughborough back division, which had flanker Eoin Cremen lingering amongst it. Clean ball quickly shipped along the line, the openside hit a lovely arching run to stretch past his man, winger Alex Davis along with him. The two on one was expertly executed, giving Davis the simplest of run-ins. He converted his own effort and you could have heard a pin drop inside Molesey Road, such was the incredulity around the famous old ground.
The game slipped back into the pattern set in the early stages as Esher once again hogged the ball but their profligacy continued to bemuse Ricky Nebbett and his staff.
Daniels’ early removal from the fray was a hammer blow for the young full-back who has been a shining light since his promotion into the senior side two years ago and with Kris Chesney shown yellow minutes later, the mood certainly did not match the rather unexpected, pleasant conditions.
England U20s scrum-half Henry Taylor was embodying his side’s growing confidence as the youngsters continued to repel Esher attacks from deep and he was at the heart of two scores in quick succession that could have, on another day, been the death knell for Esher.
A series of controlled phases managed excellently by the former Richmond man had Esher on the back-foot for the first time, defending on top of their own goal line. Sensing the opportunity to deliver a telling blow, Gareth Harris piled over for a try on his 50th appearance for the country’s foremost sporting university, improved by Davis. Enjoying a stranglehold on possession is important, but the Surrey men were being taught a lesson in effective use of it.
More coughed up ball just two minutes later from Esher hurt them even further. Mike Daniels was on hand to scoop up and the Loughborough back division took full advantage. More soft hands saw the ball reach winger Craig Dowsett on the right flank, and he had plenty to do. Cutting in and accelerating past two, it was a wonderful finish from the England Students flyer. He proved to be an effective carrier, especially in the latter stages, and his finish under the posts made it easy for Davis to open up a 21-0 lead.
Esher continued to employ the ‘move it from any area’ tactic, playing into the hands of a well-organised Loughborough defence and had Chris Surman found touch from a penalty intended to result in a catch and drive, there may have spelled still further trouble for Campbell and his men.
Albon’s removal to the bin seconds before the interval for his role in a heated meeting of the big boys proved to be the catalyst for Esher’s first points of the day, Mickey Wilson slotting a penalty born from the infringement before the flare up.
Not many in the ground were privy to Ricky Nebbett’s talk in the bowels of Molesey Road but whatever he did say should have been bottled.
Playing with a controlled tempo, it became quickly apparent that there was nothing to worry about in terms of where Esher were mentally, as they hurtled themselves into their opposition.
Tom Cheeseman got through an immense amount of work in the 10/12 alleyway, and after Bibic and Joe Brown were cut just short, Macfarlane finally made the pressure tell. From a charged down 22m drop-out, quickly recycled ball found the former Student in the midfield channel, and he barrelled over Taylor to hurtle home. Game very much on.
The effect a moment of individual excellence can have on a team is something that psychologists have talked about for decades and the No.8’s try certainly galvanised those around him. Mickey Wilson’s cute break was the starting point for a second Esher try moments later, with some inter-linking from the forwards freeing up Andy Wright to crash into the posts – referee James Sullivan just about seeing the ball touch the post protectors to award the try.
Loughborough summoned for the services of three young Leicester Tigers on their bench, but the momentum was not with them. Anders Mogensen was quite literally held up over the line by George Eastwell, and the stage was set for a grandstand final ten minutes.
Spencer Sutherland scored early into the home straight, collecting a delicate inside ball from Tom Cheeseman after his bulleting run into the heart of the Students defence opened them up, and with just three points in it, both sides knew the next score would win it, complete with bonus point.
The dancing feet of Jack Pons kept Loughborough interested, with Dowsett and Davis likely to be names to watch out for in the next few years. National One is full of men who have graduated from the East Midlands – there are six in the Esher first team alone – and those three are likely to return to Hersham at some point in their careers.
As expected, the well-conditioned Students, now chivvied on by Scott Steele in place of their departed man-of-the-match Henry Taylor, gave it everything in the final stages but with sheer grit and mental application Esher held on for a win that their dominance of the ball merited.
Nebbett will welcome the week break that his side can now enjoy, with no engagement slated in for this weekend. He will hope that the lull will allow Daniels and skipper Ian Kench to make themselves available for the trip to Tynedale on the opening weekend of March.
Kick-off at Corbridge in a fortnight is at 2.30pm.
Not used: Mines
Sin bin: Chesney (25)
Loughborough Students: Jack Pons; Dowsett, Owen, Bradford, Davis; Surman, Taylor; Daniels, Harris, Herriott; Collister, Albon; Freeman (c), Cremen, Bone.
Replacements: Rudkin for Herriott (50), Rudland-Thomas for Dowsett (75), Wells for Collister (58), Steele for Taylor (63), Eastwell for Bradford (71).
Sin bin: Albon (39)
Ref: Mr. James Sullivan