Gravesend 12 Farnham 24: After the loss at Horsham and the cancelled KCS fixture, Farnham’s first XV were back to winning ways in style at fellow table-toppers Gravesend.
The full-strength squad of 18 made the long journey round the M25 worth their while with a well-earned victory over the men of Kent.
Gravesend are a well-appointed club with a history that includes a visit to the national leagues, and on a perfect afternoon for rugby, their pitch was immaculate.
The match, and the first half in particular, was a dogged arm wrestle dominated by well-drilled defences.
The game was to be won on tight margins, one of which was the boot. Farnham skipper Toby Salmon found touch with his penalties and found the middle of the posts when given the opportunity.
Ben Jones at fly-half put probing grubbers into the Gravesend back field and Ollie Brown at scrum half cleared effectively with the box kick.
Meanwhile, on more than one occasion, the Gravesend backs sent the ball sailing from their own half over the dead-ball line, and the chance to open their account bang in front of the posts in the first minute was missed.
When two sides are evenly matched, as these were, another margin will be found in individual brilliance. That said, such brilliance requires the team to provide the opportunity – and such was Farnham’s opening score.
The lineout was working well. Ben Brown at hooker was accurate to the high-leaping Ben Adams. Ollie Brown spun the ball out and the backs attacked on the open side.
After a couple of phases and as quick as a flash, the point of attack changed to the blindside where winger Max Williams broke tackles and scorched down the left wing.
As the cover arrived, he off-loaded to the supporting runner full-back Nathan Phillimore who dotted down. Salmon T was accurate from the tee to make it 7-0 after 12 minutes.
Five minutes later Gravesend were pounding the Farnham line with successive pick and drives – a tactic that was to serve them well on more than one occasion.
Eventually they piled over out wide. The conversion was missed and Ben Brown, who picked up an injury while scrapping on the line, was replaced by Jemi Akin-Olugbade at prop.
The pack was rejigged with Jules Joris to hooker and Marco Azevedo from loose to tight head.
Not only did Marco cover both sides of the front row, but he was invariably first receiver from where he regularly broke the gain line and retained possession to keep the attack going.
Lock Matthew Chapman was another hard-running forward who caught the eye and caused some panic in the Gravesend midfield.
With defences dominating and chances for both sides spilled close to the line, the only other score in the half came with three points from the tee. The penalty was set up by a bullocking breakout by No8 Oscar Henderson that the Gravesend defence could only halt illegally. From in front of the posts, Salmon was unerringly accurate to make it 10-5 with all to play for in the second half.
The Gravesend half-time talk must have included the phrase “attack the fringes of the ruck”. And so they did, very effectively.
Phase after phase in the Farnham 22 was repulsed, often illegally, and after several penalties the referee – who had a very good game – read Farnham the riot act.
Once more Gravesend kicked for touch and once more they won their lineout and drove for the line but there was Farnham’s ubiquitous No6 Jonny Vincent, working hard on the ground, to win the turnover.
Farnham cleared their lines and edged upfield. Then the backs started to click. After flowing rugby, left to right and back again, the ball was in the hands of that man Williams who, with another display of brilliance, danced and dashed though the defence to dot down under the posts. Salmon T made sure of the extras and the advantage increased to 17- 5 on 60 minutes.
Williams picked up an injury while scoring so the back line was rejigged with Farnes coming on at flyhalf, Ben Jones to full back and Phillimore into the gap left by Williams.
A lack of concentration and confusion at the restart earned Gravesend a kickable penalty, but they opted to pick and go only for the Farnham D to force the knock-on.
However, at the ensuing scrum, Gravesend turned the ball over and after some scrappy play managed to hack through, turn the Farnham cover and win the foot race to the line. The conversion was good as they reduced the arrears to 17-12 and suddenly there was only one score in it.
The game ebbed and flowed. Harrison Horner came on for Alex Harrison and, perhaps inspired by the latter’s performance, also carried deep and hard into the Gravesend mid-field.
Gravesend were determined to get over the line and now attacked with plenty of dummy runners, many of whom – so it appeared to the watching faithful – were content to illegally block the Farnham defenders.
However, this tactic was their undoing. A dummy runner collided with the ball carrier, and it was spilled.
Toby Salmon seized the opportunity and hacked the ball deep into the Gravesend 22 where it rolled over the line.
The chase was on and at great speed centre Rory McMichael dived on the ball to score to make it 24-12 on 70 minutes.
Farnham had the chance to score a bonus-point try in the dying embers of the game. From a five-metre lineout, the Farnham pack surged over but were held up.
Alex Chalker received the goal line dropout and returned it to the midfield. As with all the Farnham players, Chalker did not put a foot wrong all game.
After some phases, McMichael dabbed the ball into the in-goal area. Farnes won the foot race only to knock on. That play heralded the final whistle and a famous victory.
Farnham entertain Beckenham at Monkton Lane tomorrow (Saturday) at 3pm – and supporters are welcome to watch the first meeting of the clubs at first XV level.