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Coping

 A playing report for Richmond’s 20th season ‘’Starlight’’

 The World’s greatest male rugby nation hasn’t won the World Cup in the 20 years since Richmond began playing women’s rugby. Why? The simple answer is that talent alone is never enough in rugby; you have to be able to cope when the pressure cooker reaches bursting point.

 So how have Richmond’s women coped in this, the strangest of seasons? It was strange because the England regime has at various times removed up to 88 senior players from the club game. This led most clubs to a point where they struggled at times to find 15 players. Premiership Clifton, indeed, folded. Richmond put out 3 very competitive senior 15s all season. This alone is a remarkable achievement.

 Winning was a key requirement for the first team this year after a barren spell in the top flight. But even more important was our mission to re-instate the club as the best in terms of atmosphere, camaraderie and soul.

 Third team first. Two years unbeaten before this term, the team reached the final game needing a win to be champions of their South East league. We had scored more points and tries (371 points, 66 tries) than rivals London Welsh, but had lost the first league game with them when we could only field 12 players. In the re-match they deservedly beat us again by one score.  

It was a disappointing end to an enjoyable campaign. Coach and skipper, Anthony and Sam Wilson deserve big thanks for their dedication and cajoling skills. ‘’I know you’ve hung up your boots and it’s your mother’s wedding, but we’re short!’’ Sam is a passionate leader who has driven the third team triumphantly for three seasons. We are in her debt. Thanks too to Terri Siwek for being a stand-out stand-in skipper.

 In the second team, we had a breath-taking start to the league campaign. Four one-score wins took us to the top of Premiership 2. New coach John Hill showed tremendous dedication to the team, especially in coaxing the side to last minute scores and wins at far-flung Plymouth and Old Leos of Leeds. These results are evidence of coping under pressure, as each week the team had played with a different start 15 and minimal subs (the down-side of fielding three 15s each Sunday).

 John’s application and commitment were matched by that of Helen Ives, in her first season back from long-term injury. She became the Captain when Billy’s back succumbed. Ivesey did a brilliant job especially when the results started to go against the team.

 John is now Director of rugby at Reading University and looking to create a seed-bed of talent for us.

 

It was great to end the season with a resounding win at Rosslyn Park without conceding any points. Incredibly, it was our first win by more than one score all season! It was like a weight lifted from the shoulders for second team stalwarts like Katie Nichol, Val Trystag, Clare Hoppe, Helen Siwek, Sarah Broadbent, Jenna McCartney, Hayley Legg, Rachael Samuel and Katie Clements and Ivesey.  Tim ‘Ginge’ Millward, our new, wily second team coach smiled broadly!

 In the first team, we strived to play an expansive game with 22 players making a difference. We’ve done so regularly and achieved a Richmond record in Premiership points scored – 538. There have been 27 different scorers, who scored 120 tries between them. We’ve played more players in the team than ever before (43) and seen the younger players develop rapidly into key team members: Tina Lee, Sam Cornborough, Laura Jenkins and Sarah Wakeford make for a very exciting present and future.

 Did we cope when under the severest pressure? In the main, the answer is a resounding yes! When we had our first choice team we were consistently 20 points better than any opponent in the country. We beat Saracens 3 and a half times in three and a half attempts (one game was abandoned at half time when the referee pulled up when we were leading 12-0). Impressively, we scored at least five tries against every opponent bar just one.

 When didn’t we cope? Three games out of 21 to be precise. We lost just once pre-Christmas; away at Worcester. We turned up complacent and they battered us mentally, physically and in first half points. We came back strongly but failed by one score. Then against Wasps at home we decided to self-destruct with various forwards having on-pitch arguments with each other. It is no coincidence that this was the one game from which Captain Nicki Drinkwater was absent. Her calm leadership was sorely missed.

 

Nevertheless, Chris Ovenden again scored a crucial try in the last move of the game to tie the scores. Anika’s conversion to win the game came back off the upright. Thanks to Chris’ finishing that day, both the firsts and the thirds ended the season unbeaten at home.

 The third game we didn’t win was the crucial, winner-takes-all league decider away at Saracens. Circumstance meant that we were without our first choice 5,6,7,8,9,10 and 12. Some of those missing, like the outstanding Flipper, Smiler and Erin were injured, others were on various world tours by the time this game came around: Anika Tiplady, Tamara Curtis and Laura Jenkins. The fantastic Emma ‘Fish’ Layland was missing due to gross mismanagement of talent, beyond our control.

 This meant that our starting line-up was effectively a brand new team playing its first game of the season; new combinations were looking to find their feet and connect with each other. Despite taking the lead through our most prolific try scorer, T Andrews, we succumbed to the remorseless contact excellence of Saracens - a side strong by its very negations. They ground us down to a slow, turn-over based game, at which they excelled. Well done to ‘Ben’ and Lee their supreme coaches – two fine servants of the sport.

 This was a gut-wrenching loss for us, which meant that the country’s highest try scorers would not be crowned Premiership Champions.

 Thank God for the all-purpose, all-action Nicky Meston. Playing out of position at scrum-half, she master-minded our Cup Quarter final win over Saracens at home. On this occasion, our forwards were dominant (we had Flipper fit!) and our backs were positively frisky: Jessie and Tina had masterful games in the midfield and Nicky Meston box-kicked beautifully. Again Chris and T were the try scorers and Nicky slotted the match-winning penalty 15-7.

 The semi-final was away at Blaydon near Newcastle. Some ageing members of the squad flew there rather than face the coach journey! Our game plan was to revert to the dynamic wide game we had excelled at for much of the season. From kick-off receipt, we worked four phases and the frisky Oli Davies took a great pass from skipper Nicki at full tilt - to score under the posts. This set the tone for the rest of the game, and the 14-try, 86-5 result set a record for the semi final stage of the National Cup.

 Other highlights of the season were the first three games against Saracens. We beat them in the pre-season friendly 15-12. In the first league game, we played Dawn, Jasper and Jocko in the front row and they played gloriously strong set piece rugby. With this base and a back row playing well as a unit, our half backs dictated the game. We were 12-0 up at half time when the game was abandoned as a no result when we couldn’t find a sober referee to replace the one who had pulled his hamstring.

 In the re-match, normal dominance was resumed with Lisa O’Keefe and T Andrews winning all the physical battles. Anika Tiplady, the best fly half in the competition, drilled kicks deep to have their back three in disarray. She also slotted 5 out of 5 pressure kicks on the day. Helen ‘Flipper’ Street played text book rugby at open side flanker; her aggressive, quick, highly communicative style commanded attention from their whole back row and half backs. We won 22-12 in the game of the season with Chris again scoring a crucial try.

 In the return league fixture with Wasps, we scored a bonus point in 32 first half minutes, but it was the home match against Worcester, which stands out as particularly special. Worcester had conceded just 84 points in the league all season when they arrived at the Athletic ground amid a torrential downpour.

 We played a very physical back row with Eryka Wessel, Sam and Flipper  bombarding Worcester from the start. Despite the atrocious conditions, we played to an expansive game plan and used dummy runners to fix Worcester’s midfield defence. The following stats show how impressive our backs were in making and using gain-line. Again Anika and Tina stood out as magnificent natural footballers in this emphatic 39-0 win. Sam Cornborough was named player of the match:-

  These stats paint the story of aggression at breakdown, strong option-taking and a fly half using a full range of skills and precision.  78% completion and an average gain per play of 12.75 yards in dreadful conditions .v. 3rd in the Premiership is quite remarkable:

FLY HALF

OPTION-TAKING

Frequency

Percentage

       Completion

Net yards gained

Average yards gained per play

PASSES

22     54%

          77%

223

10.14

KICKS

12      29%

          92%

263

21.92

RUNS

5       12%

          80%

37

7.4

FUMBLES

2        5%

-

-

-

TOTALS

41

78%

523

12.75

And so to the Cup Final held at Broadstreet, against Worcester with a won one, lost one record against them in the league encounters.

 Sadly, the ageless Sharon Whitehead was unavailable for the team (scouting in Egypt) – so she’ll just have to play again next season!

 Our coach was held up by Chelsea and Brentford football events, so we had to delay kick off. Duncan Simpson, our excellent defence coach, kept the team focused by playing a DVD of our Cup romp against Wasps in 2001 at Twickenham. The Worcester coach Roddy Yapp was furious with the delay, but then I don’t think I’ve ever seen him happy. He smiled once, or was it wind? 

In the moments before the final, we talked about the importance of playing great rugby in this showcase for the sport. Expansive rugby would tire Worcester and would play to our greater all round strengths. It was a big day for several players for whom it would be their last competitive game for Richmond – amongst these – Lisa O’Keefe, Victoria ‘Jasper’ Wiseman, T Andrews, Karen Findlay and Vice Captain Dawn Mason.

 We dominated. We throttled. We squeezed. Worcester fought hard as they always do, but without territory, possession or impetus they had no chance.

Fittingly, it was a strong hand-off and outside break from Captain Nicki Drinkwater which set us on the way.

 The second try was all about power and athleticism from T Andrews, who scored with 5 Worcester players on her back. Nicky Meston’s touchline conversion was one of those joyous moments for a coach. Simon Crabb had corrected a slight technical error in Nicky’s foot placement at Tuesday training prior to the final. That tweak made a big difference on Cup final day.

 Our third try was the best. I counted fourteen passes in four phases with Tina, Oli, Dawn and Eryka key players in a move which was finished triumphantly by Lisa O’Keefe. Coming right on the stroke of half time, it signalled an irrepressible stranglehold on the game and trophy.

 In the second period, we almost over-played! It was great to be able to get all the subs on. This is especially true as it was a first Cup Final for Rachel Bredin, Val Trystag, Katie Smith, Laura Kapo, Katie Nichol and Rachel Stribling.

 There was still time for two more tries. One from the prolific T Andrews, who was later named joint ‘Player of the Match’ along with Worcester’s fine Captain Mel Berry. This was T’s 24th try of the season – the first forward to be our top points scorer and a record try-count for a forward in a single season (the previous record was 12 by Jenny Chambers in 1995). The last try of the game was by the Captain. It was Nicki’s 20th of the campaign.

 For me, there were several stand-out players in this 35-0 win (Our seventh National Cup triumph). Jessie Matiaszuk was faultless and Tabi Tong -  resilience personified under the high ball. Eryka Wessel played her most accomplished game ever, when it mattered most. The same can be said of Dawn Mason. Technically, Dawn is the best prop in the Premiership, but she is also a fine flanker – and she played as if in both positions on this special day.

 Nicky Meston was outstanding at scrum half again. She gave a marvellously crisp pass all day to Tina Lee, who herself had a blinder. Tina is as gifted a rugby player as you’ll see (aka Jonny Wilkinson). She is strong and brave, tackles like a bulldozer, and has sublime handling, running and timing at 10 or 12. This lady is worth paying entrance money to watch and at just 18, has time to grow as a leader too.

 With Erin Kerr injured, we played Nicki at 12 – and she was peerless there. In fact, it turned out to be a great combination with the player of the season Chris Ovenden at 14 (outside centre). Chris’ excellence in attack and defence all season has been a real highlight. Scotland take note.

The number 8 position is a tough one when you play Worcester. Donna Kennedy is such a force of nature against you – you have to be smart, strong and very resilient. Claire ‘Smiler’ Muir played exactly that game, with Eryka and Sam Cornborough her big-hitting back row colleagues.

 One of the great joys of our last two Cup finals has been the opportunity to enjoy the win well before the final whistle, watching and listening to Richmond’s supporters. In this one, it will be an abiding memory for me to see the faces of long-term Richmond greats leaving the field – perhaps for the last time - to a standing, hair-raising ovation: Jasper, Lisa and Jocko - we salute you!

 So, season 20 ended in the ‘Starlight’ as we had intended. Winning was important – crucial in fact, but the club had achieved far more than just a national trophy. Our reputation is significantly re-invigorated: Players from other clubs want to play for us again, the boys want to support us and we them, and we want to socialise fully as well as play. Laura Smith, Jocko and TJ have had a massive impact for us inside the club and with the RFUW. A big hand for you guys - you were marvellous! 

For next season, our aspiration is to have a strong representation of former players on the coaching team and a lot of new, young playing members. Oh yes, and to win something big again. I can cope with that!

 

Team

 Played

  Won

 Drawn

   Lost

Pts for

Pts Ag’t

 Tries

 1st XV

    21

    18

     1

     2

  733

   144

   120

Prem 1

    15

    12

     1

     2

  538

   128

     -

2nd XV

    12

     5

     0

     7

   147

   274

    24

3rd XV

    14

    11

     0

     3

   371

   121

    66

A/B Team   Friendlies

     4

     3

     0

     1

    57

    42

     9

TOTAL

    51

    37

     1

    13

  1373

   581

   219

 

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