Old Albanian respond with narrow win following Loughborough disaster

Action from OAs game against Esher.

Action from OAs game against Esher. - Credit: Archant

The unpredictable nature of this intriguing League continued unabated last Saturday.

Action from OAs game against Esher.

Action from OAs game against Esher. - Credit: Archant

Both sides had lost a number of players to injury, contract obligations and representative appearances but such is the strength of the relative squads that no decline in playing standards was expected. Happily none was experienced.

Many spectators had certain preconceptions about this clash. OAs had narrowly avoided a serious belting in the club’s first visit to Esher in September and it was generally accepted that the visitors, lately in the Championship, had been the strongest side encountered to date.

It is certainly true that Albanians have had a fine middle third to their season and that defence, in particular, has become one of the strongest features of their game.

However, as Martin Bartley, Esher’s charming vice president pointed out in his post-lunch speech, Albanians had inexplicably allowed Loughborough back into a match long considered well won just the previous week. Conjecture was rife before kick-off.

It took just a minute for Richard Gregg to open the scoring with a penalty success from close in.

This gave motivation to the mighty visiting pack who trundled play into Albanian territory with a series of powerful drives.

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Luke Daniels was given three opportunities to even matters and took the third of these after 11 minutes.

There followed a passage of play lasting some 20 minutes when James Shanahan’s pack resisted the best efforts of their bigger opponents and Ollie Smith’s backs kept out everything thrown at them by Albanian backs.

All this while Esher gained positional advantage but without immediate reward.

This changed dramatically with eight minutes left in the half.

A strong Esher scrummage drove for the OA line.

Five metres out the formation slewed clockwise and the ball was somehow free behind the visiting pack.

It was judged a deliberate wheel and, for good measure, illegal use of the foot in the scrum was also identified.

Either of these can incur a penalty try which was duly awarded. Daniels had no problem with the improving kick.

Six minutes later an Albanian attack was turned over and a speculative kick ahead was misfielded on the hosts’ 22.

Full back Robert Kirby was on hand for the easiest of run-ins. Daniels again converted and at the interval OAs trailed 17-3.

Three things happened in the third quarter to improve matters for A’s: defence was tightened up even further and Kris Chesney and Joe Brown were both sinbinned so that, for two minutes at least Albanians had a two man advantage. Shanahan also decided to put his own particular stamp on the afternoon.

Six minutes into the half, and with Esher still at full strength, A’s backs ran left and right whilst the forwards went swiftly through the recycling phases.The gap appeared in right field and the OA coach needed no second invitation, scything through from twenty metres out. Gregg’s conversion attempt shaved the upright.

Reduced by a powerful forward and then a speedy winger Esher’s defence did all it could but 18 minutes into the half Shanahan repeated the dose in virtually the same spot, Gregg this time converting.

The shades of the previous week were lifting and Gregg’s conversion of a penalty seven minutes later gave his side a lead they hadn’t enjoyed for an hour.

A tense last 15 minutes were played out with no clear cut chance going to either side yet still there was drama. There were eight minutes left when Kirby put his side back in front from a penalty but this lead was to last a scant few seconds as a further infringement immediately gave Gregg the opportunity to reply. He made no mistake.

A delighted Shanahan, said: “What happened last week was just not acceptable but we don’t buy into a blame culture.

“We know what went wrong and we fixed it. Now we must pay close attention to detail for the rest of the season. I’m very proud of the guys.”

Saturday’s visitors Blaydon should provide a similar challenge to Esher. They are strong in all departments and their association with Newcastle Falcons has given them an edge for most of this season. Kick-off at Woollams 2.30pm.