Oakfield: Review of the season that was just like the curate's egg!

  Posted: 23.05.20 at 17:54 by Ralph Henderson

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"A CURATE'S egg "is an old English phrase meaning something which is partly good and partly bad, thus pretty unsatisfactory. It seems an appropriate way to describe the 2019-2020 Thurrock rugby season!

With the season coming to a premature end amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, Thurrock's spell in London One South came to an unexpected end. The question on everybody's mind now is when will rugby restart? With the easing of lockdown, the re-opening of schools and a reduction of new infections, hopes will rise.

This week's announcement that some sports can restore individual or small group training has given some impetus to the hopes.

Hopefully more good news will enable an earlier return than hitherto thought? Whatever happens, it seems apparent that rugby will change for the better. This week World Rugby announced that the law which allowed the scoring of tries against the posts has been rescinded. This has been done with immediate effect.

Recent law changes have aimed at making the game safer and more appealing to youngsters, with a desire to ensure enjoyment is at heart of recruitment. The calls for the law to be changed intensified after a game in the Pro 14 when an Edinburgh forward lifted a post protector to make it more difficult for the opposition to score but, in the process, subjected all players to an increased risk of injury! By ensuringg that a scorer must now ground the ball in goal provides a fairer chance of a defending team preventing a score in a safer way.

Likewise the proposed new kicking laws should encourage more exciting attacking play, rather than phase after phase of "robotic figures" battering away at each other around the fringes of the breakdown.

So the future looks promising and this hiatus has certainly given us all time to reflect.

Inform and improve

The whole point of reflection and retrospection is to inform and improve the future.

Thurrock had taken the decision to move to London South a few years ago. There was pressure from the R.F.U.because of an imbalance of numbers and the fact that we are nearest to the Dartford Crossing. There was a strongly held view that rugby in the South was more fluid, enterprising and would suit our style.

This certainly proved to be the case as it appeared that, on their day, anybody could beat anybody else, regardless of form or League position!

After a fifth place finish and victories over promoted teams littering the last few seasons, Thurrock started the year full of optimism. Most of the previous year's team had re-signed for action and the team strengthened with the return of Charlie Currie, Sam Stanley and the promise of Caolan Watts-Adams and Jack Cowman looked full of potential.

All of this was good news, yet immediately countered by Reece Durrance's decision to take a break from this level of rugby. Reece's uncompromising leadership had been a real feature in difficult times. His courage, power and skills were immense. Reece had been a superb captain over seven campaigns and, in fact, was the longest serving captain in the club's history.

Charlie Russo, who had been sharing the duties with Reece the previous season, led by example and performed admirably in his first season as the new captain.

With an excellent new coaching team under Head Coach Martin Jones in place all seemed set fair. The pre-season could not have gone better with three outstanding victories. The last-minute win over Division 2 side, Westcliff was sensational and followed by a great victory over the iconic London Welsh. The latter proved to be a great day with a packed club-house and the World famous London Welsh choir making it a 'real rugby occasion".

Incidentally our record against the great London Exiles teams is second to none having defeated London Irish,London Welsh and drawn with London Scottish!

The coaching team had done a great job in getting the players to a high level of fitness which augured well for the League season. However, almost immediately we were hit by an injury jinx that was not to give us any respite for the whole season. Freddie Russo, after a couple of set-backs decided to give the season a miss and then Caolan Watts-Adams sustained a knee injury which put him out for the whole season. In all there were more than 30 injuries throughout the season which had a massive impact on our ability to achieve consistency.

Nevertheless, the first game away to Cobham was an exciting affair and a great win. With Sam Stanley still in Sicily, Kiwi Dylan Fearon started at 10. This proved to be a master-stroke from Martin Jones and the team executed the perfect away plan. Dylan has been an exceptional talent over the past couple of years with his courage, eye for the gap and deft passing skills. He has returned home now but will always be remembered as a fine player here.

Longawaited return

Unfortunately at the end of the game Dylan suffered a mild concussion as the injuries continued to mount. We had already lost the highly impressive Dan Stone to a shoulder injury as the former Campion schoolboy looked to "kick-on" after a tremendous first season.

To an extent this was countered by the long-awaited return of former schoolboy international Phill Ellis. With the rampaging talent of Henry Bird, it looked like a burgeoning centre partnership was emergjng.

With the experience of Thurrock stalwarts, Darryl Worster, Ben Stanley and Earl Gorman all providing real impact this was a fine beginning to the season. Jake Barrand was in top form,having led his team to the final of the Essex Sevens.

His powerful running and accurate goal-kicking meant he was top-scorer once again. The duel between Jake Bedding and Alex Jones was bringing the best out of both players, while Ed Stevens continued his studies at Swansea University and Tom Saunders made a good impression.

With real optimism in the camp, it looked as if a bid for promotion might be on the cards. Then luck conspired against us again! Charlie Currie had failed to recover from a serious injury and faced another operation. Sam Stanley was delayed in Sicily. Darryl Worster suffered another shoulder injury and the versatile Rob Murphy, a vital all-rounder went down with concussion.

The coaching team of Sally Tuson, Jim Evans, Dave Stevens, Tom Worsfold, Rob Fielder and Dave Catchpole had done a great job in helping Head Coach,Martin Jones prepare the squad for the season ahead, but there was little which could have been done to change the injury situation.

Strangely, the second league game at home to "bogey" team Medway was a turning point of the season and almost a template for our performances over the coming months. After going into a commanding lead of 25-8, Thurrock allowed Medway two late scores after the brilliant Tom Pool had left the field. Thurrock had "snatched defeat from the jaws of victory", a theme which was to typify the season.

There was much to commend the Medway game, but the late implosion rocked confidence.

Next up was a trip to bottom-placed Dartfordians and a disappointing game only lit up by a couple of good tries from Kye Holloway making a good impression on the wing. Kye and his brother, Kodie have made very impressive starts to their senior careers.

Another bonus was the switching of Niall Clifford to Full-Back. Solid under the high ball, his tackling is exemplary and his incursions into the line decisive. This product of Loughborough University has had an outstanding season.

With Charlie Russo "knocking down brick walls" with his heavy duty carrying, the irrepressible Tom Pool playing his superb"all-court"game, Brad Rettigan's incredible skill-set and Joss Nunn's amazing athleticism and ball - skills, Thurrock's back row options were of the highest calibre. Added to this was the the option of Rob Murphy and a rapidly improving Sam Reilly.

In the Second Row Dritan Loka, with the physique and power of a top quality lock was making up for the loss of Caolan Watts-Adams while Anthony Catchpole made the most of a welcome return to the "boiler house".

Mayhem among the opposition

In the meantime Ryan Wilkins was making a "good fist" of replacing the irreplacable Reece Durrance. His battle with Dan Ulph is fascinating, but all good clubs have at least three good hookers! Dan Ulph had a great game against Horsham when forced to come on at 6!

Chris Shorter's carrying, scrummaging and tackling were of the highest order and he was a real bulwark of the team. Dan Carey was back to his menacing best and caused mayhem among the opposition,whilst young Jack Cowman was a revelation with his scrummaging and ball-carrying.
When the mighty Charlie Currie returned towards the end of the season the pack began to dominate and this allowed Jake Bedding a lot more opportunities on the front foot.

The one serious downside was the series of injuries which brought about the premature retirement of club legend Brad Rettigan. This quiet, reserved young man started playing for Thurrock at 16 as a centre or fly-half before moving to No.8. Brad was incredibly loyal and could have played at the highest level having travelled the same route as Jim Evans after William Edwards. Brad will be remembered as one of the best players to represent the club and we all hope we haven't seen the last of him yet.

With all this turmoil on the injury front, consistency was proving impossible to achieve. One week we would lose inexplicably to the bottom placed team, Dartfordians, (who,at one stage,were down to 13 men) and the next we would go on three game winning streak against the top teams!
What is sure is that when we could field a full team we were a match for anyone. A good example of this was the game away to high-flying Horsham. Horsham had won the game at Oakfield 34-38 in a massively entertaining game when they scored twice in the last two minutes!
Horsham made a terrific start in the corresponding fixture before Thurrock seemed to align all their talents and energies into one incredible team effort. Horsham had won their previous six games, but were overwhelmed by a magnificent Thurrock team performance and an expensive hat-trick of tries for Dan Stone.

This was a real triumph for captain Charlie Russo and reminder of what might have been;the complete team performance with a tackling demo from Ben Stanley and the "only" kick of Tani Loka's career. At this stage Alex Jones was doing a good job at 10 in place of the injured Sam Stanley.

As we moved towards the end of the Covid 19 restricted season, it seemed that we were, once again, on an upward trajectory. Indeed we saved the best till almost the end of this truncated year with the beating of the League's best team and champions-elect, Havant. In a roller-coaster of a game,it was left to Dan Stone to hold his nerve to kick a last minute penalty to seal a deserved win.

This was a real highlight of a season in which Jake Barrand was the top scorer and Joss Nunn the record try scorer. My favourite was a wonderful side-stepping, powerful run against Beckenham which even featured a chip ahead. Indeed all Joss's tries were pretty spectacular!

There had been some wonderful rugby on occasions, in contrast to some mediocre lapses in form and concentration. Nobody should underestimate the importance of the tragic loss of Kevin Hymas, our Team Manager.

Injuries prevented the development of such promising youngsters such as Lewis Cross and Keiran Yeomans, yet these injuries provided opportunities for the emergence of people like Jack Cowman, Kodie Holloway and Callum Pluck. With the outstanding young players now emerging from the highly successful Colts' team,the future looks really exciting.

This had been a real "curate's egg" of season. Personally I can't wait for the end of the Pandemic and a "Brave New World"!

N.B. Please note that these are my own personal views, intended to keep Rugby high profile during these difficult times.

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