7 January 2023

Guildfordians v OPFC 1st XV

An away trip to Guildfordians is always met with great enthusiasm by members of the Old Pauline Football Club. Better still, the happy rescheduling of December’s snow-aborted adventure to the first week of January was to a day beset by train strikes, wind and rain. So the travelling party huddled together outside a locked clubhouse, ahead of the New Year’s first match, with smiles on their faces and joy in their hearts.

The squad was missing some regular faces, but what was lacked in game time was made up for in stature. In anticipation of game played in the tight, the Pauline pack was stacked with front rows, including the long-overdue return of ‘Fitness’ Fergus Lawrie, and first appearances of the season for Sam Wilson and John Barrett.

Some confusion surrounded the toss but captain Olly Darwell-Taylor elected to play down the notorious Guildford hill. With wind and gradient at their backs the Old Paulines, receiving, opened with box kick followed by box kick by scrum half Roddy Charles, pinning Guildfordians in their own half. Strong early carries from the rambunctious Max Texier, a local boy, built pressure, and despite some early spills with ball in hand a poor clearing kick from Guildfordians put the ball in the hands of Darwell-Taylor who floated a long pass to Guy Crawshaw, who in turn rounded his opposite number to finish smartly in the left corner.

Barrett was keen to mark his return early with his characteristic barrelling runs, but a couple of spills gave the pack their first opportunity for scrum practice. With upstart Rahul Shorthose, convert Dan Wellings and stalwart Duncan Gordon-Smith in the front line, amply weighted from behind, scrum dominance was established early. With possession and confidence in spades, a soaring cross field kick from fly-half Max Hart almost found Darwell-Taylor in space for a try-of-the-season contender. The bounce did not favour him.

Momentum shifted though, and the first sniff of Pauline indiscipline led to successive penalties, putting Guildfordians in attacking position for the first time in the match. The defensive line was caught narrow, and fast hands and smart lines from the Guildfordians centres created space wide for a score in the corner.

Defensive adjustments were made, and more powerful carrying from Texier, Shorthose and Hall gave territorial advantage and a Pauline line-out on the 22. Hart dug into to the first-phase playbook, and the flattest of flat passes from Tim Morris put Darwell-Taylor through a hole to score under the posts. A devilish gust at just the wrong moment cost Hart the conversion. 10-5 to the Old Paulines.

Advantage gained, the team found they could not press on. Injury to Shorthose took some of the scrum power to the changing rooms with him, and tired legs started to leak penalties. The line-out was exposed for its lack of jumping options, handling errors crept in, and a final chance to extend the lead was squandered ten yards short of the line. Cue the good-cop, bad-cop double act from coach and skipper at half-time, and the Paulines ran back out for what they knew would be a scrap up the hill in the second half.

Guildfordians were buoyed by the topographical advantage they now had, and the away team were soon under immense pressure. Back-to-back injuries to Texier and Crawshaw cost the Old Paulines their two greatest ball-carrying threats and the opportunity to make tactical changes. The bench was emptied, with Simon Carr manfully taking up an uncomfortable position on the openside flank. With little time to adapt and under pressure on their own line, the Paulines conceded the equalising try from close range.

Guildfordians’ ascendancy continued for much of the second half, with Paulines struggling for possession and territory, and errors resulting in more missed opportunities. The home side were carrying hard, and beginning to reverse the scrum advantage as they poured down the hill. What remained though was Pauline courage and defensive stand after defensive stand kept the opposition at bay. With just over ten minutes remaining, a little territory was gained and the Guildfordians line was finally unlocked by a Darwell-Taylor line break, brought down just inches short of the line. Cynical play by the Guildfordian scrum-half was all that denied the supporting players the try, and he was rightly given marching orders by the referee. The penalty was slotted by Hart, and a 13-10 lead established. Squeaky bum time.

The kick-off pinned the Paulines deep in their own half. Struggling to exit, Guildfordians were soon attacking and looked certain to score in the corner and take the lead. A flying cover tackle from Hart put the winger in touch as he reached to score, and the Paulines had a line-out with just four minutes left on the clock. Panic on the touchline as again the line-out drill was amiss, and possession conceded. The Guildfordian maul was set. Yet enter towering man-of-the-match Wilson through the middle to tear possession from the attackers and relieve the pressure. 

A clearing kick and a couple of defensive sets later and the game-winning knock-on was forced. A draining 13-10 with tired bodies, but a brave second-half performance under pressure at a famously difficult ground to visit.

Spirits were soon to be buoyed in the clubhouse. Defeat for Bec Old Boys puts the Old Paulines clear top of the league, with the boys from Earlsfield visiting in a week’s time. Could be the league decider. Don’t miss it.

Tom Roberts