Last time out Shire Hall had a narrow but encouraging loss away to league leaders Littlemore, so they were looking to get back to winning ways against a much improved Oxford side.
Shire started off the game well, with some strong forward phases being complemented by some great running rugby from the backs. Shire were quick to establish dominance in the early exchanges, quickly releasing Lenny Pitt down the wing only to be stopped short by a high tackle when going over the try line. With the try inevitable, the ref awarded a penalty try (unlucky Lenny) which was promptly dispatched by returning centre Stefane Margot. A slight error off the kick off, and perhaps a touch of complacency after scoring so early on, resulted in a penalty given away at the breakdown inside the Shire 22, with Oxford slotting the penalty to reduce the score to 7-3.
This kicked Shire back into gear with Oxford seemingly incapable of matching the force up front with the Shire forwards carrying hard and gaining yards. Indiscipline at the breakdown resulted in a penalty to Shire, kicked into touch by Stephane Margot to set up a line out 15m out. Shire won the lineout and were quick to set up a maul, marshalled by no8 Tom Birch initially before second row Neil Evans took over, marching the pack to the try line for a simple score. Unfortunately the conversion was missed this time, 12-3 to Shire.
Shire continued to impress as the first half progressed, drawing in players with strong carries by players such as openside and Captain Rich Clarke and hooker Jack Proctor and giving fly half Dave Tridgell the space to utilise a quick and talented back line. Shortly after their second score, Shire found themselves in the Oxford 22 when prop Matt ‘hips don’t lie’ Margot spotted a gap around the side of a ruck, snaking in for a cheeky touch down under the posts, with his brother Stephane adding the extras; 19-3 to Shire after 30 minutes.
Oxford were being starved of the ball, and it soon found its way back in Shire’s hands. With space to play with, the Shire backs utilised training ground favourite ‘Shark’ ball, resulting in winger Lenny Pity who, after terrorising him so far, steam rolled his opposite man yet again and touched down in the corner. A deserved try but injured in the process, he was replaced by Rhys Stewart. Conversion missed, so Shire would enter half time 24-3 up with a bonus point already in hand.
At half time Eric Murray was replaced by Dave Holmes prompting a slight reshuffle in the pack, with Neil Evans moving forwards into the front row, Ollie Homan-Green taking the vacant second row berth and Dave Holmes occupying the blindside flank. As good as the first half was for Shire, it did not start the same as Oxford came out with renewed energy and a determination to put things right.
Oxford certainly started the second half the better of the two teams with an intensity they didn’t have before, making yards and retaining the ball to allow their youthful backline so find some space to shine. It was neck and neck for a while, before Tom Birch found himself in a little bit of space ahead of the Oxford line, cutting a good angle and smashing 2 or 3 defenders out of the way to score, but with the conversion missed the score went to 29-3. However it wasn’t long before the increased tempo from Oxford led to some serious pressure on Shire, with their big second row finally stretching over the whitewash for a score. The conversion missed, the score now 29-8.
Shire seemed almost in a daze this second half, and with the bonus point already secured, could perhaps be accused of already thinking the match was won. But Oxford hadn’t read that script, and with another backline move saw their inside centre sweep round to the outside, showing great gas to finish a well worked move. The try was converted, Oxford were working their way back into the game at 29-15.
Shire attempted to regain dominance and an attempted chip through from outside centre Luke Jellicoe saw, after several deflections, his partner in crime Stephane Margot able to dot the ball down under posts. Somewhat fortuitous with the bounce but a good finish under pressure, Stewart kicked the extras to make it 36-15.
This score took the game away from Oxford with little time on the clock, but again they rallied and after some poor tackling, uncharacteristic of Shire of late, allowed their quick 10 to jink his way to the try line in the final play of the game, which he duly converted for the final score of 36-22.
This really was a game of two halves and an incredible first half from Shire papered over a lacklustre second, with the players disappointed they were unable to press on from some fine performances early on.
Special mentions go to the contributions of Rich Clarke, Matt Margot, full back Alex Webb and Luke Jellicoe who all had excellent games, but it was the presence Andrew Carson in the second row who provided ballast in all areas of the pitch. His work rate around the pitch belied his years, and was excellent in supporting and securing ball for team. A real ‘engine room’ performance that provided the foundation of a solid win for Shire. DoD Day was a tough call, but was eventually given to Tom Birch for his penalty count within quick succession!!