The irony of Charlie Hayter’s interception to cement London Scottish’s place in the Championship for another year wasn’t lost on most of the sizable crowd at Richmond last Saturday. A year ago, David Howells had pounced on a loose Barking pass to get them there, writes Richard Grainger.
If you don’t much care for the bagpipes then the only thing worse than the lone piper is six of the blighters. But for most of the match, Esher did their best to silence them by showing the home side the door back to National League One with an expansive display of rugby that belied their predicament.
“It was a tremendous attacking Esher side,” said Scottish head coach Simon Amor, “they played some really good rugby so we knew we had to go out and score points.”
You may not like the fact, either, that you could finish ninth from twelve in the division and still be relegated — and most of the London Scottish faithful certainly did not. But rules are rules, and a four try win for Esher and an empty slate for the Exiles would suffice to keep the south London side in the second tier.
And that looked to be on the cards until the 67th minute when Nicky Little’s pass was picked off by Hayter to send Esher through the trap door. The pipers who had been subdued to the mildly
irritating levels of Heathrow-bound planes in the West London sky, erupted in an orgy of discordant cacophony at the Exiles’ fourth try.
Esher barely touched the ball in the first quarter, other than in the fifth minute when they turned it over for Mark Atkinson to break from his own 22 and feed Charlie Walker who sent Luke Daniels over. Flanker Sam Stitcher converted but on 21 minutes, Little allowed his opposite number Dan Mugford to wriggle past him to score beneath the posts.
With Esher creaking at the set piece, Scottish’s territorial dominance was rewarded by a try from Stuart Peel, who dived over in the left hand corner after a 15-phase build-up.
Esher’s paceman Walker was next on the score sheet in the 34th minute when he outpaced the defence. Stitcher again added the extras and when Esher were awarded a penalty on the stroke of half time deep in the hosts’ 22, Stuart Mackie dived over under the posts to give the visitors a 12-21 interval lead.
This wasn’t what the loyal home supporters had come to see, but to their relief, when Mugford turned down a kickable shot at goal early in the second period, Alex Clarke drove over from the ensuing lineout. This was symptomatic of a change of tack by the Exiles. In the first period they used the forwards to dominate proceedings with Mugford unwilling to risk much beyond the 12 channel. Hitting Esher with a high-risk blitz defence, often precariously close to off-side, had played into the hands of the visitors, who exploited the space out wide with slick handling.
“The key thing for us was getting the early score in the second half to give us three tries which meant that we had a good 35 minutes to get the fourth,” said Amor.
Referee Luke Pearce, who at 23 has made a meteoric rise through the ranks and is rumoured to be granted a professional contract by the RFU, displayed outstanding game management but rarely glanced over his shoulder. Had he done so, especially in the first period, he would have kept the Exiles’ midfield a little more honest.
The tension went up several notches when Peter Synnott crossed for Esher in the 56th minute, giving them the bonus point; Stitcher converted. But the bubble burst 11 minutes later when Hayter intercepted and cantered 40 metres to the line to send Esher down. Of all the possible outcomes, this was the least likely, but credit to Simon Amor’s side for their positive approach — it would have been all too easy to seek out the losing bonus point. An unusual statistic was that neither side opted for a shot at goal throughout.
Walker raced to the line for his second try on the stroke of time to win it for Esher but this was for consolation only.
“It’s a shame we played so poorly in the first four play-off games, when we can play rugby as well as we did today,” said Esher head coach, Mike Schmid. “We lost our confidence a bit and it took a while to get it back. We thought we might have the edge fitness wise and if we could get them to chase us around the pitch we felt we might be successful.”
This was a wonderful game of rugby and widens the debate as to whether the existing structure should stay. It almost certainly won’t, but a relegation dogfight that produced nine tries and a cup-final atmosphere in the middle of April has got to be good for the game.
Elsewhere, in Pool B Leeds pulled off a minor upset at Headingley beating the Cornish Pirates 43-25, while Bedford saw off Rotherham 27-0 at Goldington Road.
In Pool A London Welsh beat Nottingham 25-33 at Meadow Lane and Bristol scored five tries to defeat visitors Doncaster 39-10.
In a game of absolutely no consequence in Pool C, Plymouth ran riot in an eight-try win over Moseley at Brickfields, finishing 54-24 ahead to top of the pool of death.
All this means that Bristol will meet the Cornish Pirates while London Welsh take on Bedford in the two-leg semi-finals.
You can follow Richard Grainger on twitter @Maverickwriter