London. . . .24
EVEN an observer as implacably opposed to the ADT Divisional Championship as this one, would have to concede, albeit grudgingly, that the final 30 minutes of this match provided as compelling and entertaining a demonstration of rugby as anything we have seen all season. The fact that there were 50 minutes of unrelieved boredom before it scarcely mattered, although the poor quality of the play for so much of the game cannot have escaped the notice of the national selectors.
It was just at the point when we were thinking that Christmas shopping at Sainsbury's would have been a more attractive alternative to what we were seeing on the field, that the game came to life. At that point, seven minutes into the second half, London led 17-3. Jon Webb's second successful penalty of the match did not appear to play a major part in the scheme of things, no reason to suspect that anything so prosaic would be the spark in the tinder box. But it was.
Seven minutes later Andy Robinson pounced on a wretchedly poor tap back by London at the line-out, and with Webb converting London's lead was cut to four points. It was obliterated two minutes later when Darren O'Leary's poorly placed kick out of defence was run back by South-West, Morris, Clarke, Barnes and Webb all handling before Beal, with a subtle change of pace, went over in the corner.
Now we had the mini-series within the blockbuster ending. The duel between Rob Andrew and Stuart Barnes, more a figment of the media's imagination than a point of serious debate among the selectors, had fizzled out. Andrew, in pole position, still had Barnes in his rear-view mirror. But then, with a darting blind-side burst, he was away and over for the try that restored London's lead and which Andrew himself increased with a conversion.
Five minutes after that, the South-West struck again, with Barnes making up lost ground. First, his break opened the way for Guscott's try, and then, with four minutes remaining, his high kick - too high and not far enough - nevertheless induced panic in the London defence. They conceded a penalty and, from a difficult angle and out of the cloying mud, Webb kicked the goal which won the match.
The rest of the game can safely be consigned to the shredder. Not all of it was the fault of the players. The pitch bore as much resemblance to Twickenham as Hickstead does to Lord's, and we feared the worst for Rob the groundsman for this Christmas when he was summoned via the public-address system to the office. What, we wondered, awaited him - a P45 and two weeks' severance pay was the favourite in the press box. But, it was not Rob's fault either. He has no more power to control the weather than the selectors have to make a silk purse from the sow's ear of this championship.
For the players, however, it was like churning through a ploughed field, first sapping the stamina, then the confidence. Ben Clarke, England's No 8, exemplified the problems faced by the players. Time and again he got into good position only to be reduced to incompetence with the ball in his hands. But not everyone suffered so. Andy Blackmore and Nigel Redman, particularly the latter, had good matches in the line-out and Andy Robinson was everywhere, alert and supportive. Simon Morris and Nick Beal, who scored five tries between them against the North last week, continued their progress, and Beal looks a genuine prospect wherever it is that the selectors eventually decide to play him. He looks assured of a bright future.
But it was Andrew's form which will have most interested the selectors, not least that in the treacherous conditions he kicked quite beautifully, and over long distances. He finished with 19 points. Should Jon Webb falter - and he is not enjoying the best of form - then it might persuade the selectors to consider Ian Hunter as their full-back for the Five Nations' championship. The argument has always been that Hunter cannot kick goals, but Andrew, in this form, offers an intriguing option. Goalkicker or not, there is no doubt who will be England's stand-off half against France in January.
SOUTH-WEST: J Webb (Bath); N Beal (Northampton), J Guscott, P de Glanville (both Bath), S Morris (Gloucester); S Barnes (capt), R Hill (both Bath); C Clark (Swansea), K Dunn (Wasps), J Mallett, N Redman (both Bath), A Blackmore (Bristol), J Hall, B Clarke, A Robinson (all Bath). Replacement: D Crompton (Bath) for Mallett, 8 min.
LONDON: A Buzza; S Pilgrim, F Clough (all Wasps), D Hopley (Cambridge University), D O'Leary (Saracens); R Andrew (capt), S Bates (both Wasps); J Leonard, B Moore (both Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), A Snow, R Langhorn (all Harlequins), M Skinner (Blackheath), D Ryan (Wasps), J Cassell (Saracens).
Referee: G Black (Ireland).
Scores: Andrew (pen, 2 min, 0-3); Snow (try, 15 min, 0-8); Webb (pen, 23 min, 3-8); Andrew (pen, 25 min, 3-11); Andrew (pen, 40 min, 3-14); Andrew (pen, 45 min, 3-17); Webb (pen, 47 min, 6-17); Robinson/Webb (try/conv, 53 min, 13-17); Beal (try, 55 min, 18-17); Andrew (try/conv, 60 min, 18-24); Guscott (try, 65 min, 23-24); Webb (pen, 76 min, 26-24).Reuse content