On a wet and windswept afternoon, St John’s took on a combative Jesus team in the first game of the new season. Prior to the match, the talk had been about the mismatch between the larger Johnian pack and the more skilful Jesus backline and on the day, elements of that certainly rang true.
The conditions certainly suited the larger John’s pack, with the torrid rain meaning a closer confrontation with the forwards than Jesus would perhaps have wanted. However, the initial momentum was with Jesus, who had a scoring chance in the 16th minute when a Johnian foul allowed Tim Johanson a chance at adding three points. However, the ball fell short, and the importance of a strong kicking game was soon seen, with multiple through balls and up-and-unders from both Jesus fly-half James Charlick and other members of the Jesus backs.
Charlick also had an outstanding break in the 25th minute, storming down the left wing before being brought down. However, any idea that this would be a flowing game involving frequent back breaks was dispelled by the powerful John’s forwards, who were able to “dominate the set pieces” according to captain Will Mayne, who also recognised that his experienced pack as compared to the novice Jesuan front row played a large part in the John’s victory.
The strength of the Johnian forwards allowed their fly-half to slot in a penalty from in front of the posts, following on from an impressive display of power from his tight five. The Jesus cause wasn’t helped by their tacklers often not getting low enough to stop the Johns back row from making the hard yards. However, the breakdown area was fiercely contested, with Jesus forwards putting in thunderous hits.
John’s defence held firm amid renewed pressure from Jesus as the end of the first half, but unfortunately missed a second penalty in the 34th minute after John’s were ruled offside. The home crowd were in a buoyant mood, especially as the game devolved into a back-and-forth between the 22s. A high crowd turnout despite the weather was an unexpected highlight of the match, with plenty of good-natured banter and singing from both the home supporters and a large travelling contingent of Jesuans. As the first half finished with Johns 3-0 up, various chants and witticisms swept across the pitch as the two teams stood focused and intent in their respective huddles.
Despite a strong push at the start of the second half, John’s soon drove up the field, with their back row seemingly in a better position at the start of the breakdown, and often being more committed to winning vital possession. At this point, as throughout most of the game, Jesus were living off scraps of possession as John’s battered their way upfield.
This relentless pressure soon paid off, with Jesus controversially penalised for hands in the ruck despite the new rules in place at college level. It was interesting to note that many sideline pundits appeared to have a firmer grasp of the new rules than the official, although whether this was informed knowledge or simply a partisan reading is debatable. Nevertheless, such issues didn’t concern the Johns fly-half, who coolly put another three points on the scoreboard with 24 minutes to go.
Tempers briefly flared after this, but Jesus channelled this aggression to get within five yards of the Johns try line. Despite this, Jesus got sucked into playing John’s at their own game in the forwards, and were eventually repulsed after multiple attempted charge downs on the John’s kicker.
Towards the end of the half, play fluctuated between each half of the pitch, with perhaps more kicking than had been seen before, despite the conditions. Johns seemed happier to play with the ball in hand, and Jesus piled on the pressure deep into injury time, searching for the try that might end John’s 7-year winning streak. At this point, the physicality of the game was definitely taking its toll on both sides, with many players determinedly limping on to the next breakdown. At the whistle, Jesus were encamped in the Johns 22, but unable to break down the solid defence of the Johns team, who pulled on all their experience and winning mentality to shut out possibly their closest challengers in the last few years.
At the post-match interview, victorious captain Will Mayne complimented the Jesus team, recognising the potential in Jesus’ young pack, but also happy with the Johnian performance, especially given the early stage in the season, praising both his forwards and backs for successfully completing their “equally important roles” in the game. Jesus captain Ed White was understandably disappointed, but “proud of the boys”, and was looking forward to the return match which will be at Jesus in four weeks time.