Gazelles effortlessly lolloping across the pampas, playful youthful tiger cubs chasing around with boundless energy in the scorching sun, cheetahs racing in long strides across parched soil or even powerful wildebeests driving across the African plains…….
None of these are synonyms that in any matter of partial fact could come close to describing the lead booted Frankensteinesque plodding, that was on exhibition in a far corner of Barn Elms, as the ‘mighty’ Emperors made their 2018 debut.
Christmas had taken its toll. After a carefully planned training regime and accompanying diet of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and ‘Love Actually’ washed down by canapés, pigs in blankets, stuffing, bread sauce (who invented that?), mince pies, Christmas pud, Brandy butter (a better invention) and an average of 400 sweets a day, the line-up for the first game of the season looked more like a telly tubby convention than the chiselled pickings generally on offer on the 1XV pitch.
Thankfully the festive excess had done little to stem the rowdy de rigeur banter of the changing room, and a barrage of New Year greetings and abuse were merrily doled out to each arriving squad member – I say squad,… there were fifteen of us!
Tezza bristled around the changing room with his natural bravado, faux confidence and excitement in our abilities, as Edge wandered in last as Father Stash and brought Christmas gifts of club shorts and ties. The scene was set.
As has oft been the case this season, Old Cranleighans ‘wendy’d’ out on us, cancelling the fixture on Friday, leaving Edge to frantically do the rounds to eventually pick up London Media 2XV as a late replacement.
And so it was that every man jack of us woke on Saturday morning and thought ‘fuck! I have to run around a pitch trying to keep up with a bunch of twenty somethings that train twice a week! Wtf’.
As we took to the park, the instruction was clear – “right lads, it’s pretty simple, it’s brute force and the wisdom of age against youth and fitness! Let’s not run any further than we have to!” The sage like words of Cornish echoed in our ears as we all looked at each other and thought ‘bugger, why did I keep having seconds of turkey?’.
The referee, who looked even old enough to be Edge’s dad, attempted to check studs but he could neither bend down far enough or seem to focus without his bifocals, so he blew the whistle and the wait was over. Welcome 2018……
To a mixture of surprise and relief, the Emperor’s roared into action and the early exchanges went rather well. The Emperor’s pack were definitely brutish and whilst not pretty, with barely five minutes on the clock, Exiles found themselves on the Media five yard line. The media throw in sailed over the top of their barely leaping no4 and Edge not only managed to seize the ball at the tail of the line out, but barge over from 5 yards to open the Emperors’ account. A very tidy swing of the boot from Harry and we were up, 7-0.
Rusty as hell, but surprisingly bright, the first twenty minutes was all Exiles. The pack generally dominated in the tight exchanges, with Smarty, Mozza and Pottsy as solid as a rock in the FRU, barnstorming running from Joycy, Corndog, Dom and Kyle. As ever, Mini’s service from the base was quick and accurate, as he marshalled the forwards and launched the backs into wave after wave of running.
Twenty minutes in and the Emperors were once again attacking phase on phase. In the close quarters Media were under pressure. Valiant defence held the Emperors back on their line until Mini finished with a great score to further assert the early Exile advantage. In exchange he picked up a peach of a black eye, complete result! The story of his 80 yard dash and the knock out punch on Media’s 8’2” lock was going to go down so well in the office on Monday….
Harry, who despite resembling a hairy cornflake nowadays, remains not only one of the best stand offs the Club has had the privilege to announce in its starting line up, but also a metronomic kicker. And so it was that the Emperors reformed for kick off at 14 – 0 ahead.
Media inevitably rallied. That’s the problem with twenty somethings – they are too competitive (or stupid) to know, or accept, when they are beaten!!
They ran well off the rucks and started to realise they could make ground close into the pack and through sustained pressure and numbers running off the shoulder in the centres.
The Emperors suddenly looked rusty and disorganised in defence and closing in on half time, Media scored and converted 14-7.
Not to be bowed, the Emperors regained the anti, once again taking the game to the Media 22, Fine running out wide from Gordo, James and Willy O was consistently gaining stretches of territory and resilient defence from Media was finally broken as Captain Tezza muscled over with ball from a close quarters ruck to finish a period of sustained pressure. Harry’s beard got in the way….. 19-7.
Disappointingly, at half time there was only water…. mind you it is January.
The chat was focussed on two things. First let’s continue to shore up the defence and stop them making yards in the midfield. Tom and Tezza were now full into their tackling and were stepping Media back on the gain line like demons and stemming the yards Media we’re trying to make. Tom particularly putting in some bone shaking tackles on their big runners. And second, “let’s not run any further than we have to!” Wise words captain Tez.
After a strong first 40, it was clear by fifty five minutes that the wheels had come off at Half time and we’d been sitting in a pile of bricks for ten minutes. Christmas excess, a lull in concentration, too much booze and food or just general apathy? Who knows, but it was all Media for the first fifteen minutes and they took two quick tries to reverse the scoreboard to 19-21.
Nevertheless, the Emperors looked solid. Willy O was as always the safe pair of hands under the numerous high balls hoisted his way, Laws and Gordo constantly in support as the back three launched counter attacks with glee. But media had the run of the play to sixty minutes.
Under Twenty to go. Could we rally?
Well it was less of a rally than a red bull soapbox run really, but we lifted and some fantastic running from Cornish, Dom, Tom and Tezza started to make yards and turn the momentum round.
After a series of drives closing in on the Media line and after pressuring what was a resilient defence, Cornish scrambled over for a score. Media responded five minutes later and we entered the last five minutes with the scores at 24-26, trailing by two.
Given that we were 75 minutes in and most of us were blowing, the Emperors did themselves proud. Running to the last, the ball moved through phases up and down the line, Mozza in the wing one minute and Gordo getting caught up in the rucks the next. It was all hands on deck and everyone was battling.
We camped in their 22 for a series of phases, and when Media inevitably infinged because of the pressure, just left of the sticks, the referees arm lifted. Penalty.
We lined up. Harry had hands on the ball. The forwards itchingly ready to take the tap and drive towards the Media tryline for an epic score that would secure a historic and heroic victory…….
“Excuse me sir” piped Harry, sounding every bit as polite and erudite as a first day student at Eton College, “what is the score?”
“You are two adrift” said the ref, in slightly gruff tone.
“And how Long to go Sir?” The angelic enquiry continued.
“Two minutes” the answer came back, in a slightly gruffer tone.
“Then we’ll take the Kick!” came the prompt response.
Twenty nine jaws dropped. Did he really say that? Is he kidding? Is this a ruse to get us off guard? Surely this is a gentleman’s game? We run the ball don’t we? There’s honour in losing but playing the game? Does his beard have some ginger hair in it?
No joke. Harry took the tee and slotted the penalty.
“Fuck it” he said, all traces of angelic tones gone, “a win is a win! And they are all in their fucking twenties!”
He had a point.
Media kicked off. Now one point adrift. Forty seconds of frantic rugby, the ball was spilled forward out of Media hands and the referee blew the whistle for full time.
Emperors 27 Media 26.
The Red Lion was full of debrief and the rights and wrongs of ‘that’ Kick. But Harry was absolutely right. A win gentlemen, Is a fucking win!