Saturday, 31 October 2020

Hosts use conditions to their advantage to sink Wallingford

ABBEY made expert use of the appalling weather conditions in the final stages of their game with Wallingford, and in doing so they overcame a 16-8 deficit to claim four valuable points in Wadworth Southern Counties North.

The game management of the pack, combined with canny tactical kicking from fullback Jules Greenaway and skipper Will Bevan gave the home side the edge when it mattered, and centre Charlie Shackleford crowned a remarkable display of place kicking with a fine penalty from the left touchline in the penultimate play of the game.

Rain fell throughout the first half, and a strong, swirling wind tended to favour the visitors in the opening 40 minutes. Abbey did their best to move the ball in the opening stages, with half backs Sol Wallis-Robinson and Jon Malivoire, along with hooker Lewis Jones, heavily involved. Bevan and second row Toby Staker made ground after a tapped penalty, but the ball was lost, and Wallingford instantly looked dangerous. The visitors’ pack retained possession in a series of drives, and when Abbey conceded a penalty at a line-out after six minutes fullback Charlie Campbell landed a fine kick from 30 metres out.

Malivoire sensibly used a grubber kick to restart the match and when the visitors returned the ball into the Abbey half Greenaway caught securely and set up the next attack with a confident run. Number eight Mike Beckly made a good break from the first scrum of the afternoon, and Greenaway made a further 15 metres up the right touchline. He was well supported by winger Matt Ellis, but the ball was lost just inside the visitors’ half. This wrong-footed the home defence, and after a swift counter-attack Wallingford winger Peter McKinley sped away to touch down for a try in the left corner. Campbell’s conversion attempt drifted to the left, but his side now led by 8-0.

Second row Jeremy Knights won clean ball at the next line-out, and at the next scrum Abbey were awarded a free kick. Wallingford’s reaction to this cost them a further 10 metres, and Beckly, Staker, Malivoire and Bevan combined well in a move which took play to five metres from the visitors’ line.

Wallingford hooker Jack Payne was yellow carded for not releasing after a tackle, and Abbey elected to tap and go. Jones appeared to have touched down on the line, but when the try was not awarded, Abbey drove once more. Flanker George House was held just short, but prop Adam Postlethwaite was up in support and dived over for Abbey’s first try. Shackleford’s conversion attempt from close to the left touchline was never going to be easy, and he did well to strike a post with his effort before the ball bounced wide.

Wallingford took control of territory and possession again, and after 23 minutes Campbell added another fine penalty, this time from 35 metres.

Abbey countered well after this, with Bevan, Jones and Beckly taking play back to the visitors’ 22. Winger Callum House, who was joining his brothers in the starting line-up for the first time, took Shackleford’s pass and ran strongly up the left touchline, and soon afterwards Abbey won another penalty. Shackleford made no mistake from what on any other day would have been an easy position, and at this point Abbey replaced Staker with Gereie Sutherland. The sin-bin period ended with Wallingford still 8-5 up, but Abbey began to play some confident rugby against the wind with Sutherland and prop Conor Slaven making ground with strong charges. A great 20-metre run and chip ahead from Greenaway put Abbey in a promising position, and when Wallingford retrieved possession flanker Ed House did really well to steal the ball back again.

At this stage, with half-time four minutes away, play was halted when Payne received what initially looked to be a serious injury. It was bad enough for referee Simon Long to call a premature halt to the half, and there was talk of moving the game to a neighbouring pitch. Both teams sought the refuge of the changing rooms while Payne was covered in a blanket on the field, but fortunately, once he had received attention he was able to walk off.

The rain eased off to an extent in the second half, but the wind increased in power, with Abbey the more likely to benefit. Slaven drove strongly at the start of the half, while Sutherland and Beckly were involved in a fine crash ball move. Ed House made further territory, but Wallingford regained the ball and began to look a threat once more. With 15 minutes of the second half played, they took the ball into the Abbey 22, where the forwards commenced a series of drives.

Eventually, prop Carl Tappin powered over the line, and the celebrations of the visitors’ pack indicated the value of a score against the elements. Campbell’s conversion attempt from near the right touchline barely left the ground, such was the strength of the wind.

Jones, Beckly and Greenaway attempted to run the ball when the game restarted, but what was really needed now was a series of high balls into the Wallingford half to test the visitors’ defence and try to force errors.

Wallis-Robinson came off at this point, with Max Boucher replacing him. This entailed Callum House moving to the centre and Bevan reverting to his more accustomed position of scrum half. Almost at once, both he and Greenaway began sending bombing kicks high into the Wallingford 22, and from one of these Abbey won a penalty. Shackleford duly goaled from the edge of the 22, and Wallingford’s lead was now reduced to 16-11.

As the game neared the final 10 minutes the Abbey forwards finally took full control. Prompted by Bevan, they pounded away inside the Wallingford 22, with Sutherland, Jones and Postlethwaite all prominent.

Sutherland made 10 metres from a tapped penalty, and after a series of drives Slaven crossed for the all-important try after 72 minutes. Shackleford’s conversion gave Abbey the lead for the first time, and it was now essential to protect this advantage by playing the game well inside the opposition half.

With coach Luke Harding urging his players to “manage the game”, Greenaway sent another bomb into the 22, where Callum House and Shackleford both ran well. Drive after drive saw the Abbey pack retain possession and keep their discipline, and with injury time approaching Wallingford had second row Ed Searle sent to the bin following a warning to both captains.

The visitors offended once more, and with Jones limping off with an injury, a cheer from the Abbey supporters in front of the clubhouse heralded the arrival on the field of Karl Luff. Abbey’s forwards coach had made his first team debut as long ago as the 1994/95 season.

With just a minute of injury time remaining it looked as if Abbey would elect to take a scrum close to the left touchline but Shackleford called for the kicking tee and he landed the kick to stretch Abbey’s lead to five points, but there was still time for the game to restart.

This gave Wallingford one last chance to save the game, and they wisely restarted with a grubber kick, hoping for an Abbey error but the ball was secured safely, and Bevan’s kick to touch sparked off the home side’s celebrations after a hard-won victory.

Abbey: J Greenaway, C House, W Bevan, C Shackleford, M Ellis, J Malivoire, S Wallis-Robinson (M Boucher, 62 mins), A Postlethwaite, L Jones (K Luff, 84 mins), C Slaven, J Knights, T Staker (G Sutherland, 30 mins), G House, E House, M Beckly.

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