Stalemate at the top of the league

David Hay 15 November 2007

St John’s appear to have the edge in men’s rugby division 1, having walked away from a hard-fought match against arch-rivals Jesus with a draw. The magnitude of the match was revealed at the final whistle, with John’s players cheering as though they’d won the league, and one might argue that they’ve set up such a finish with this result.

To use a sporting cliché, it was a game of two halves, with Jesus battering away at the John’s tryline for the first, and Johns sustaining periods of relentless pressure and possession in the second. As in the previous match between the two sides this season, the physicality and intensity of the game was apparent throughout – crunching tackles, players swarming around rucks and a succession of mauls evidently taking their toll on the players come the final whistle.

What of the game itself? It wasn’t pretty – if anything, flashes of excitement were the exception , but it was nonetheless tense, with the large crowd (surely numbering in the hundreds) constantly on tenterhooks, regardless of their affiliation. Both teams appreciated the importance of the game, with John’s looking at possibly the end of their seven-year reign, and Jesus looking at starting a dominance of their own.

The first half started brightly for the home side, with Jesus encamped in the John’s twenty-two. There was some strong defence, but whenever the ball was hoofed clear there was a Jesuan underneath it, ready to run it straight back. This wasn’t however the fluid Jesus backline of previous matches, and it might have been surprising to anyone familiar only with the stereotypes (John’s – all pack, no backs, Jesus – small pack, great backs) to see that John’s had more breaks in the backs than their counterparts on the opposing side.

Jesus’ forwards were acquitting themselves admirably, making up for their smaller stature with better teamwork and cohesion, as well as better discipline. A Johnian offence allowed Tim Johanson to convert a penalty into three points, and with that Jesus were ahead, but it was not to last long. Ten minutes later, towards the end of the half, and John’s were in the opposition half, and looking to stay there. Some thunderous crash-ball from their back row later, and they were in the twenty-two. Then, a penalty in their favour. Five minutes before the end of the half, and the scores were level.

Galvanised, John’s started the second half strongly, looking to establish a lead. However, in keeping with the game so far, strong defence prevented any clear chances. John’s were shipping the ball out to the backs, only to meet with a wall of black and red shirts. The ball sailed through the air, each side probing their opposition’s capabilities to return kicks, each side doing enough to maintain the score, but not enough to break the deadlock. Wingers occasionally broke loose, only for their gains to be snuffed out by a big hit and a big kick.

And whilst each team threw all they had at the opposition, neither could gain the upper hand. The game ended just after an attempted drop-goal from Jesus, and one imagines that if John’s had been in the same field position, they too would have chanced their luck, such was the tight nature of the game. From the sidelines, it was an absolute thriller, an intense experience, and in the end the result was entirely justified, with neither side asserting a clear claim to be better than the other, and both contributing to riveting match.

David Hay