Old Albanian put in complete display to beat Esher

Holmes goes over the line to score

Holmes goes over the line to score - Credit: Archant

Old Albanian brought the Esher bandwagon to a grinding halt last Saturday with a performance full of power, invention and maturity, writes Brian Quinn.

The muted, almost tentative approach of the previous week at Tynedale became a distant memory as if the trip to the north east had been a dress rehearsal and here, at Woollams, was the main event. Even the very popular mayor, councillor Annie Brewster, was present to witness the remarkable transformation.

Esher had also played a Newcastle side on the first Saturday of the New Year when they hosted Blaydon but had triumphed in a hard fought victory. Since the men of Corbridge had been put firmly in their place by Blaydon just before the Christmas holiday, all the signs pointed to the fact that Andy Holloway’s charges had a serious job on their hands.

Holloway himself was in bullish mood before kickoff: “The team has proved they are a match for just about anyone in this league and nobody was happy with last week’s effort. I am hoping for a backlash,” he proclaimed.

Esher faced the Winter sun as they opened proceedings and from the outset it was evident that Albanian intensity was at a much higher level. The forwards drove into Esher territory and Lawrence Rayner attempted a difficult penalty from 50 metres. He missed narrowly but A’s attacking statement had been made.

That said, it was full back Luke Daniels who opened the scoring for the visitors with a penalty of his own but there were to be few opportunities for the Surrey men in this opening half.

What occurred was the gradual erosion of Esher’s game plan and for the next half-hour Albanians set about dominating the lineout and dismantling the visiting scrum. Dogged Esher defence and a rash of knock-ons ensured there was no further score until injury time when things changed dramatically.

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Rayner, a master of precision all afternoon, found Danny Holmes who took the scoring responsibility and bypassed three defenders on his way to the line. Almost from the restart skipper Billy Johnson drove forward and cleverly slipped the ball to the supporting Ollie Cooper-Millar. He drew Daniels, the last defender, and put Hayden Smith in at the posts. Rayner converted both.

The fly half increased the lead with a penalty 10 minutes after the interval as the OA machine tightened the screw and all the while pressure on the visitors increased. Maro Itoje, one of three England U20s in OA ranks charged upfield and, when he was held, Rayner transferred to Richard Gregg for the simplest of touchdowns. Rayner converted.

Daniels reminded all there were two sides on the park when he squeezed through the narrowest of gaps and headed for the line. With just Gregg to beat, fullback took on fullback. Gregg was up to the task and the danger passed.

The bonus point try was scored by Stef Liebenberg who took a short penalty close to the Esher line allowing Rayner another simple improvement to complete A’s scoring. Cameron Gentles provided the Hersham men with some consolation with the last try of the day but too far out for Daniels to convert.

Now they know what’s possible, the visit to Rosslyn Park next week takes on a new piquancy for Holloway and the team. Just three points separated the sides earlier in the season and Park narrowly failed on their visit to Blaydon. Speculation is so often futile, especially in National One, but it will be a great contest.