Winchester reinforced its position at the top of the RFU’s London 3 South-West league on Saturday with an emphatic 36-15 bonus-point win against second-placed Battersea Ironsides. They are now the only team in the league with four winner’s bonus points in four games.
Playing with the sun on their backs in North Walls Park, they started as they meant to go on, spreading the ball wide. But the first of many penalties for offences on the ground awarded by Hampshire Society referee Jack Tompkins went to the visitors, whose fly-half Charlie Stewart kicked them their first three points.
Two minutes later, Winchester’s outside centre Jake Hiscock burst through an ill-organised defence, and fly-half Josh Tolan converted.
As the game developed, Winchester showed some of the hallmarks of their game. Forwards ran and handled like backs, with second-row Jerry Alfandari, props Ben Turner and Jim Beavan, flanker Matt Golding and No 8 Rob Rees all prominent in open play. Backs tackled and set up rucks like players twice their size, full-back Tom Forster, scrum-half Guy Mawhood and inside centre Jesse Ribeiro, who sowed confusion in the opposition defence by constantly swapping positions with Tolan, all playing like men possessed.
The Ironsides forwards, though coming off second-best at both set scrum and lineout, were showing that they were cuter at playing to Mr Tompkins’ interpretation of the laws governing the breakdown, and several times took turnover ball from Winchester on the ground, while penalties cost Winchester both possession and territory, and Golding a yellow card.
Just outside Ironsides’ 22-metre line, Alfandari won a Winchester lineout. Two phases of attack later, prop Beavan took the ball at first receiver, ran a good line and gave a huge cut-out pass over the heads of two fellow-players to winger Keir Garner, who touched down in the corner. Tolan’s conversion attempt missed, but the home team was 12-3 up and motoring.
The pattern of the game changed subtly in the second half. Ironsides seemed to have decided to keep the ball in their forwards and half-backs and kick for territory, a sensible enough strategy given Winchester’s superiority in the backs. The trouble was that their kicks often failed to find touch, and Winchester took full advantage of their chances to attack from deep. Ten minutes in, Golding offloaded to Ribeiro for a try under the posts, duly converted by Tolan, and the score moved on to 19-3.
Two minutes later a dazzling display of handling by the Winchester front row, culminating in a cheeky Turner offload out of the back of his hand, would have earned another try had Ironsides not conceded a penalty. Winchester sensibly opted to take the three points, and Tolan obliged.
Mawhood found touch on the left on the visitors’ 5-metre line. Ironsides knocked on in the lineout, Rees picked up at the back of the scrum and crashed over for the bonus-point try. 29-3.
Against the run of play, and over an hour of playing time after their first score, Ironsides scored again, captain and winger Tim Homewood finding space wide out on the left to go over in the corner. With the conversion missed, Ironsides were up to eight.
As before, Hiscock had the answer. With an imperious burst up the centre he carried the ball into the red zone, with coach Gareth Martin, playing at flanker, in support. As the defence lined the two up, Mawhood , whose relaxed running style disguises blistering speed, rocketed between them, Taking Hiscock’s offload and touching down under the posts. Tolan’s conversion brought it to 36-8.
The last quarter was the least satisfactory from Winchester’s point of view. Not for the first time this season, they began to lose their defensive shape, covering across perhaps two-thirds of the field at best. With substitutes Julian Funes on for Mawhood and Dan Bailey for winger Alex Baylis, and Rob Rees in the sin-bin, they let Ironsides in for a final try and a score in double figures, Stewart converting Seb Trower’s touch-down with a drop-kick in the hope that they could use the last minute left on Mr Tompkins’ watch to get a bonus point. But it was not to be.
“They gave us a good challenge for the full 80”, said Beavan afterwards. “But the character of our team won it for us. I asked the boys at half-time to stick together, and they did.”
Coach Martin confessed his relief that Mawhood, 17 years his junior, had taken the last try. “I would have needed oxygen and a mobility scooter”, he said.
His view of his team’s performance was untypically upbeat. “We’ve played four very different games against four very different teams, and we’ve shown that we can think on our feet and adjust our game as required. It’s all down to team spirit and hard work. I’m proud of them.”
Tom Forster, Keir Garner, Jake Hiscock, Jesse Ribeiro, Alex Baylis; Josh Tolan, Guy Mawhood; Ben Turner, Chris Searle, Jim Beavan (captain), Matt Lown, Jerry Alfandari, Gareth Martin, Matt Golding, Rob Rees.
Substitutes: Alex Lee, Julian Funes, Dan Bailey
Tries: Hiscock, Garner, Ribeiro, Rees, Mawhood
Conversions: Tolan 4