There was agony for EURFC at Topsham, whose Twickenham dreams were dashed at the hands of sporting powerhouse Loughborough. For the third year in a row, EURFC have now suffered semi-final agony. The loss also signified the end of Exeter’s two and half year unbeaten record at Topsham.
Heading into the clash, the BUCS Premier South champions were missing a number of key players. Sam Skinner and Jack Owlett were both away on international duty, whilst Oli Rammage joined club captain Ben King on the injury list. Nonetheless, on home soil in front of a vociferous crowd, they were confident of continuing their excellent campaign.
However, the visitors began well, asserting their authority on the game in the early stages. A controversial early penalty at the scrum allowed them to secure the first points of the afternoon, making it 3-0. This was soon followed by a Loughborough try. Scintillating wing play broke the Exeter defence and the centre was on hand to receive the inside ball and cross the line. The visitors were 10-0 up within the first ten minutes.
Exeter needed a spark to get them into the game and centre Rob Coote obliged. A mesmerizing run and deft offload, awoke the crowd and earned the Green Army their first point scoring opportunity. Fly half James Doe duly converted and EURFC were up and running at 10-3.
However, the momentum was disturbed by another handling error, which gifted Loughborough territory. Their potent backline again stretched the Exeter defence and only an outstretched tackle from Doe stopped a certain try. Nonetheless, Loughborough still turned pressure into points, after a breakdown infringement allowed them to make it 13-3.
Exeter again responded well, with Coote once again the architect. A strong line break created space for winger Alex Ross to enter the Loughborough 22. Some physical carries from the forwards allowed Exeter to put a period of sustained pressure together for the first time in the match, which earned them a penalty. Doe did the honours to make it 13-6.
Then Exeter were dealt another blow with captain Harry Ledger forced off the field with injury. His expertise at the breakdown and his leadership qualities were to be missed. Exeter continued to make uncharacteristic errors, gifting their opponent’s field position. This was again costly, as a well struck penalty made it 16-6. This lead could have increased further after Loughborough won two more penalties but their kicker was unable to slot either and Exeter were granted a reprieve.
Just before half term, the Green Army finally found some rhythm and began to put some well-constructed phases together. No.8 George Shirlaw showcased his physicality with a couple of notable gain line breaking carries which allowed Exeter some much craved quick ball.
A mini break from centre Alex Wilcockson nearly put Ross into the corner but Loughborough’s defence scrambled well, albeit illegally. The proximity to the line meant the offence perhaps warranted a yellow card but the referee disagreed and when Doe’s kick slid just wide of the posts, the half time deficit remained ten points at 16-6. This was probably a fair reflection of the half, in which Exeter had given away too many penalties and struggled for territory.
Exeter began the second half with increased physicality and reaped the rewards. Another monumental carry from Shirlaw punctured the defence and earned a penalty. However, from the advantage Exeter should have scored. With acres of space out wide to exploit, the Exeter backline lost their composure and the ball went to floor. Although, the penalty took the scores to 16-9, it felt as if there were points lost rather than gained.
Indeed, Exeter were nearly punished further after another violation at the breakdown gave Loughborough another chance from the tee but once again the resultant kick was wayward. However, they did not have to wait long for the next score. The impending drop out was kicked long, which allowed Loughborough’s pacey back three a chance to counter and they did so with aplomb, breaching the Exeter defence to cross the whitewash. The score leapt to 21-9 and Exeter had it all to do.
The match could have been out of reach moments later after the winger raced through, however a stunning last ditch tackle from winger Aaron Struminski kept Exeter in the game. A couple of superbly judged tactical kicks from scrum half Sam Waltier then gave Exeter fantastic field position, from which to mount their comeback. The Green Army were also beginning to enjoy the ascendency up front, particularly at scrum time which was providing consistent forward momentum.
This momentum eventually told as Exeter earned a penalty just outside the 22. Replacement fly half Freddie Gabbitass opted to kick for the corner, as Exeter went in search of their first try. The pack obliged and after a successful driving maul, they barged over in the corner, with hooker Paul Davis the scorer. Gabbitass expertly dissected the posts to make it 21-16 and the stage was set for an epic finale with twenty minutes remaining.
A resurgent Exeter immediately returned into the Loughborough half, via a series of immense carries from the forwards. The most notable of these came from the impressive back row Matt Eliet. This gave Exeter consistent quick ball. However, Loughborough’s defence remained impermeable. Exeter were thus forced to be more expansive which provoked mistakes.
Meanwhile at scrum time the referee continued to frustrate the home side. Despite Exeter having superiority, he refused to penalise the Loughborough front row amid countless collapses. These killed the momentum and also the time remaining on the clock.
This frustration was compounded moments later when Loughborough were able to clear the danger and venture into EURFC’s half. A clear error at the breakdown gifted them a penalty in front of the posts, which they converted. This extended the lead to more than one score and was a major blow.
The game was then sealed moments later. Loughborough’s rapid winger exploited Exeter’s narrow defence and scored from inside his own half, taking the lead to an unassailable 29-16. Exeter finished strongly, with a final few phases of dogged determination which highlighted their strength of character but it was to no avail. The match finished 29-16, the Twickenham dream was over.
It was a painful defeat for a team that have achieved so much this season. They did not play to their maximum and missed some key players but credit must be given to the visitors. They executed their game plan well and their back line in particular shone throughout.
As BUCS Premier South champions, EURFC have only lost twice all season whilst playing some stunning rugby. This coupled with a Varsity rout means they should be extremely proud of their efforts. With a plethora of young potential in the club, may 2016 be their year?
Boys crash out of the cup 16-29 …still the best finish for a number of years and left it all on the pitch #proudclub
— EURFC (@ExeterUniRFC) March 11, 2015
Freddie Turner- Online Sport Editorbookmark me