The Old Wimbledonians First XV remain undefeated at home this season after beating Cranleigh RFC in emphatic style on Saturday in front of a spirited crowd at Coombe Lane. This was an outstanding performance from all 18 players involved in the match day squad, earning a memorable victory against a club several positions above them in the league table.
A Tense First Half With Little to Separate the Teams
The OWs were welcoming back Captain James Howell for the first time since suffering an injury on the opening day of the season, and the scrum-half made an instant impact on the game with several probing kicks over the top of the Cranleigh wingers to keep the opposition on the back foot in the opening exchanges.
Both teams looked keen to play some attacking rugby early on, despite the conditions being challenging, and some slick handling in the Cranleigh backs allowed them to make their way upfield.
The visitors scored first, too, when they were able to earn a scrum just outside the OWs’ 22. The set piece was solid, allowing the loose forward to pick up from the base, generate enough speed to break past the first line of defence, then step inside the last man to touch down for an impressive score. The conversion was close to the posts, helping Cranleigh take all seven available points from the opportunity.
That was a momentary lapse in concentration though, and one the OWs learned from quickly. The following kick off went deep and the OW pack did well to settle down in the visitors’ half of the pitch, eventually winning a penalty which fly-half Rhys Davies was able to send over from 30 metres out.
Despite the score line favouring the opposition ever so slightly, the OWs looked the stronger team and were putting some very promising phases together, with the trio of Sam Thomas, Hamish Gibb, and Angus Fairbairn all carrying well to make dents in the Cranleigh defence.
Cranleigh did also look dangerous at times, but the home tackling was able to negate their attack on several occasions. And whenever they opted to kick the ball, young OW full-back Ed Gardner was always on hand to deal with the danger and hurt them on the counter, beating defenders with ease.
After a period of sustained pressure inside the Cranleigh half, with strong carrying again moving the OWs down into the 22, the forwards were able to control a line-out and challenge the try line with a series of phases, with second row Taz Habib in particular repeatedly getting over the gain line. When enough space had been created out wide, good hands down the line by Davies and centre Rory Southgate resulted in an expertly taken try by Gardner, his first for the First XV. Davies was able to convert from a challenging angle, giving the OWs a 10-7 lead.
Cranleigh responded by mounting another trip upfield soon after, varying their attack well to keep the home side guessing. Unfortunately, a yellow card for the OWs two minutes from half-time put unnecessary pressure on, allowing the visitors another scrum deep in our 22. Somehow the 14 men left on the pitch were able to absorb the pressure and clear their lines, preserving the three-point lead at the break.
The OWs Continue to Improve Throughout the Game
While down a man, the OWs had their work cut out for them, but with forwards such as prop Joe McEachron getting through a huge amount of work, Cranleigh struggled to put any meaningful sequences of play together. Also during this period, wing Joe Walsh and try-scorer Gardner both dealt with Cranleigh’s aerial assault well, keeping things tidy and running back any kicks with interest.
Once that 10-minute sin bin was up, the OWs regained control of the game, taking huge confidence from their efforts to keep Cranleigh scoreless while down to 14 men. Scrum-half Howell organised the forwards well, and his half-back partner Davies kept the ball in the right areas of the pitch with some clever tactical kicking, meaning the vast majority of the second half was played down in the visitors’ territory.
Despite the miserable winter weather, the home crowd grew louder and louder as the game went on, recognising the tremendous effort from the entire OW pack in a game that was always going to be decided by the forwards.
Two more penalties by Davies in the second half, both from difficult wide angles, saw the OWs continue to build momentum and improve as time ticked on. Soon Cranleigh started to force things, making a number of unforced errors that summed up just how much pressure the Wimbledonians had put them under from the very first minute.
In an impressive end to the game, the OWs were able to demonstrate the composure they were lacking the previous week to see the result out, denying the visitors a losing bonus point. Ultimately, Cranleigh had no answer for the intensity and precision shown by the home team on the day. Final score: 16-7.
A Well Deserved Win
This was the Old Wimbledonians’ best performance of the calendar year by a long way, and will give them plenty of reasons to be confident heading into their remaining two league fixtures before the Christmas break.
Everyone in the match day squad played very well, but Man of the Match Ed Gardner should be particularly proud of his performance on a day when he was tested repeatedly, showing maturity beyond his years in defence and plenty of flair going forward.
Both sets of supporters will likely agree that this win was well deserved, and the result will make for an intriguing encounter when the OWs make the long trip down to Cranleigh for the return fixture early next year.