The Exiles returned to Barn Elms after a summer of restructuring and rebuilding, wondering what might be in store for the faithful fans (2). New head coach Mike Avis leading a team of new, returning and weathered faces out for the first time against local rivals and friends Old Tonbridgians who finished an impressive 3rd last season. Notoriously slow starters, and with all members undoubtedly enjoying their off-season expectations were low after last season but optimism was high after a positive pre-season. Little did both the fans on the sideline know the treats they had in store as the Exiles cooked up their biggest home win in two seasons.
Coming out the blocks like Whalley at an all you can eat buffet, the Exiles put early pressure on OTs with big carries from the front 5 setting the tone early doors and an infringement leading to the first 3 points of the game from new fly half Labron. Almost immediately, OTs hit back with their impressive captain and second row burying over after a strong driving maul that was a key part of OT’s game plan on the day. Last season, the heads would have dropped and voices would have raised. This seasons Exiles however are a different breed.
From the next kick off, pressure on the catcher led to a fumble into touch and off the back of the next lineout, Sam Read won a decisive turnover. Having a 10 was somewhat of a novelty last season, and with the lungs very much blowing already there was 14 voices all shouting in harmony ‘points!!’ However, Oli “Dildomits” Blandford had other ideas, tapping quickly and burning the cover defense for a quick 5 pointer. This appeared to ignite the Exiles. A few phases later, and there was ANOTHER try for Blandford – which the writer can’t actually remember – an unusual experience as his favorite pastime of the 17/18 season was fumbling well weighted passes over the line, Labron slots the conversion over for another 2 points. The Exiles were in the mood and sensing blood and shortly after center Cal was on hand in front of his old man (& Exiles number 1 fan) Bill to snaffle an offload from Stu to score by the posts, again converted by Labron. More big carries followed from the forwards, with Ali, the ROC and Dave Reed prominent in the loose and giving a great platform for the backs. On their own ten meter line, an inside pop from the returning Sam Berridge led to Stu again slithering through midfield. Not backing himself to make a 3 meter pass (I for one had no faith, there was a strong south westerly breeze) he instead hit the accelerator and beat the fullback for the bonus point try before half time. A further penalty for Labron and the half time score was fairly healthy at 30-7.
With the positives at half time flowing from new coach Mike and skipper Laz, the Exiles were wondering if they could maintain their impressive start. This was an all too rare feeling for the Exiles of late and in all too familiar fashion, the wheels nearly came off. Following an early penalty from Labron, a drop in intensity from the E’s led to two quick tries from the Old Tonbridgians forwards to leave the score at 33-21. Was this going to be a collapse on par with Exiles sides of yesteryear?
After a frank, and a very to the point one way discussion under the sticks, the team pressurized OTs from the off and a turnover deep in their 22 led to a 3 metre charge from Shep at full goo to barge/fall over under the sticks, again converted by Labron. For the next few trips into the OTs half, the Exiles came away with 3 points after pressure from the back row Read brothers who caused havoc on the floor for OTs all day. Labron and Berridge increasingly putting pressure on OTs by kicking the corners and playing the Exiles into the OTs half, and giving the forwards a chance to catch their breath before the lineout. Off a stolen lineout, Blandford put Laz through a gap (not the first one he made on the day – ask the dentist) to break to within 5 of the OTs line. Miraculously, he flicked up an offload to charging back row partner Reed who sat down the full back and managed to belly flop over the line for the Exiles 6th try. Shortly after, following a bullocking run from Ben Sawbridge, Cal was again on hand to take a short pass and canter over under the sticks to make it 7 on the day.
Would there be a final flurry? After another break from the kick off, dynamic front rowers Ali and Shep combined down the left to put away fullback Turk. With the last man to beat, he popped back inside for Ali to score a well deserved try and take it to 8 on the day for the boys, if only they did double bonus points eh? With time running out, OTs scored a well deserved consolation try in the corner.
Old Tonbridgians were excellent opponents, as always putting in an 80 minute performance albeit maybe running out of steam on this occasion. They are a skillful bunch and we look forward to the return leg in Richmond at the end of the season.