DAY TO FORGET FOR ESHER AS FLUENT OAs OVERWHELM VISITORS AT WOOLLAMS
OLD ALBANIAN (17) 31
Tries: Holmes, Smith, Gregg, Liebenberg
Convs: Rayner (4)
ESHER RUGBY (3) 8
All the scores from Saturday afternoon can be viewed over on the Club's YouTube channel, with highlights filmed by the excellent Nick Richards.
A dynamic, vibrant Old Albanian side, inspired by three outstanding England U20 prospects, comprehensively outplayed Esher to down their visitors 31-8, severely denting the Molesey Road side’s promotion ambitions.
After a hard-fought win over Blaydon last week that saw Ricky Nebbett’s men start the new year in positive fashion, expectations were brought crashing back down to earth at Woollams, as Albanians delivered an 80 minute showing full of fluidity and attacking intent.
Tries from Danny Holmes, Hayden Smith, Richard Gregg and Stef Liebenberg gave the hosts the bonus point triumph their performance more than warranted and, if the scoreline should have reflected the possession stats, it may have been a much more uncomfortable afternoon for Esher.
With the ever-reliable David Millard ruled out late in the week, joining the already absent Ollie Mines and Alex Mount, Nebbett was forced into the market to bring in ex-Bristol and Ulster prop Jake Caulfield from Plymouth Albion. The Ireland U20 man was awarded a first start, with David Coutts handed a late call-up to the replacements’ bench.
Joe MacManus was also given a full league debut following Robbie Shaw’s departure to London Scottish and with Andy Garner and Patrick O’Grady on the long-term injury list, utility back Freddie Strange was named in the senior squad for the first time this season, after joining the Club in the summer.
Right from the opening exchanges, Andy Holloway’s charges set out their stall to move around the team that had beaten them back in September as often as they could, and they had almost exclusive possession of the ball in a one-sided first half.
Lawrence Rayner missed an early kick at goal but it was never going to be a problem, as the Hertfordshire outfit settled into their free-flowing style, initially instilled by the now departed James Shanahan.
It was clear to see why Saracens England U20 youngsters Nick Tompkins, Nathan Earle and Maro Itoje are rated so highly by their paymasters at Allianz Park, as all three tormented Esher in the loose. Tompkins saw plenty of ball, with Rayner never for a moment opting to tighten things up.
Backed up by the industrious Brett McNamee, who was excellent in the reverse fixture between the two sides, and a very mobile back-row in skipper Billy Johnson, Ollie Cooper-Millar and Matt Chambers, the men out wide were asking questions of the Esher defence at every opportunity and but for an alarming number of knock-ons, may have pierced the yellow wall earlier than it eventually was.
A Luke Daniels penalty, coming after an overzealous Albanian tackler refused to let go of his man, gave Esher points on their visit notable foray into opposition territory, though that was never going to quell a clearly motivated OA group, which had been given a tough going over by Tynedale last time out.
The imperious Rayner, like a well-oiled metronome, was hitting his men every time, with Earle and Tompkins beginning to punch holes in the Esher line. Twice they found themselves camped on the whitewash, and twice they coughed up possession which with a little bit of application, would have resulted in five-pointers.
To compound the issue for Esher, Brandon Walker was forced off with less than 20 minutes on the clock and the sight of him walking back down the tunnel, arm in sling, was a sad one. The big South African has made the step up from level four rugby with ease and it is hoped the injury is not as serious as first feared.
His replacement, the returning Pete Synnott, was sent to the bin moments before the interval and now with the numerical sway, Albanians struck.
Moving quickly from right to left, Rayner’s flat pass to Holmes in a central position invited the centre to move forward at pace. Despite having plenty of options on his left, Holmes put his foot down, sidestepped two and raced over to finally put OAs on the scoreboard.
Sensing that they could really put themselves out of sight, the white shirts came forward right from the kick-off, and their next score was an outstanding one.
Billy Johnson drove forward and with men hanging off him, somehow produced a sublime offload to the oncoming Cooper-Millar. The openside found himself with plenty of room to gallop onwards and with just Daniels to beat, drew his man like it would tell you in an old-school textbook, and gave a neat pass to Hayden Smith on his outside. Smith, recently returned to these shores after a stint in the NFL, had a straight run to the line and he made it with room to spare.
Despite being only 14-3 behind at the interval, there was a sense among the Esher faithful that it would take a monumental shift in proceedings for their men to emerge with anything to take home.
Led by Mike Macfarlane, there was a response after the re-start, as the No.8 tried to take his colleagues forward inch-by-inch. A lack of finesse was hindering, but there was a marked increase in desire and willing to take the game to Albanians.
It was perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not, that his entry onto the field came just before the best chance of the match for Esher; indeed, arguably the most clear cut opportunity in the game.
As he so often does, Daniels collected a bouncing ball before surging through the smallest of gaps, and raced into the final third. Steve Wood had the presence of mind to follow his full-back and Daniels, with his opposite number Richard Gregg in front of him, had two options. The inside ball to Wood would have most certainly resulted in a try for the gutsy flanker but Daniels fell victim to that cruellest of mistresses: indecision. Half trying to beat Gregg, half trying to find Wood, the chance went begging. Daniels had a second bite at the cherry after being hauled down, but his pass from the floor only found Wood having gone forward first.
To rub salt in ever-gaping wounds, OAs went back down the other end and scored a third. Itoje pumped forward at a rate of knots and with Esher scrambling, Rayner exploited the overlap, to tee up Gregg for the simplest of finishes.
Shocked and hurting, Esher gave everything in the final passages of play – Pete Synnott the stand-out, almost putting in Spencer Sutherland only for the winger to run out of space – but Albanians were not going to be denied the maximum haul of points.
From close out, directly in front of the posts, that livewire of a nine in Stef Liebenberg took full advantage of a tiring Esher defence to skip through untouched and score, to the absolute delight of his teammates. It completed a remarkable afternoon in St Albans as the form-book was well and truly ignored, trampled all over and then thrown out the window.
Cameron Gentles dived in right at the death to ensure Esher didn’t leave without a try, which doesn’t happen often in National League rugby. A real tough baptism for old hands and newcomers alike, and the coaching panel will have plenty to think about before the visit of Wharfedale to Surrey on Saturday. At the forefront of discussions this week will be how to repair the scrum, so often the jewel in the crown over the past 16 months.
A number of senior players are close to coming off the physio table in time to make themselves available for the clash with ‘Dale, who were surprisingly turned over on their own turf by a Tynedale unit fighting for their National One lives.
Kick-off next Saturday is at 3pm.
Old Albanian: Gregg; Spiers, Tompkins, Holmes, Earle; Rayner, Liebenberg; Briggs, McNamee, Staff; Itoje, Smith; Johnson (c), Cooper-Millar, Chambers.
Replacements: Cope for McNamee (73), Remfry for Staff (73), White for Smith (69), Lombaard for Holmes (62), Marchon for Speirs (55).
Sin bin: Synnott (36)
Ref: Mr. Fergus Kirby