London Scottish 33 Jersey Reds 3721/02/2017
After a first half they could barely have dreamed of, Jersey Reds narrowly avoided a nightmare conclusion to this pulsating Greene King IPA Championship encounter.
It seemed absurd to think that a rampant Scottish side were within one try of condemning the visiting Reds to a defeat that would have been every bit as hard to take as the last-play 39-37 loss at Bedford on Boxing Day.
A Sam Katz penalty - his seventh successful kick in as many attempts - after four added minutes put the visitors four points clear, but the officials ruled there was still time for a restart, and worse still for the Reds, it was Scottish who immediately gained possession. They pounded away for multiple phases - around 15 - but the Jersey defence was resolute and there was little, if any, progress beyond the half-way line. Eventually the Exiles ran out of options, and energy, and the visitors secured turnover ball to enable replacement scrum-half Joel Dudley to punt the ball off the field and bring the final whistle.
The edge-of-seat, heart-in-mouth conclusion was a far cry from a stunning opening by the Jersey squad, with the Exiles simply unable to cope with the power of the Reds pack.
The Scottish set-piece was creaking from the off, with the opening lineout lost and then some attacks via scrums and lineouts that ended with Simon Kerrod forcing his way over. Katz added the extras, plus a penalty, and was soon lining up another conversion after some silky back play by the Reds. Callum Sheedy, debutant Nick Scott and Jordan Davies executed a training ground move to perfection, leaving Kieran Hardy with a straightforward finish.
The Reds pack continued to exert pressure both at scrum time, forcing a series of penalties, and at the rolling maul, including one effort that advanced around 40 metres. The Exiles' try-line was again under siege, and after Nick Haining and Gary Graham went close, Kerrod took his place in the pick-and-go queue, and powered over for his second. Two more points from Katz and the visitors' lead was an astonishing 24 points going into the second quarter.
Having had virtually no possession previously, the Exiles showed what they could do with ball in hand by producing the try of the day after 26 minutes. Robbie Fergusson's grubber kick near his own 22 sparked the move, with the centre collecting and passing to Jason Harries; Ross Neal was next to take the ball on and found Jamie Stevenson on an inside line to canter to the posts.
The Reds pack responded well to this set-back, applying more pressure to their opponents which led to prop Grant Shiells being given a yellow card after repeated infringements at the scrum. An attacking lineout sparked another rolling maul, and it was Dave McKern who came up with the ball - the Aussie lock's first try for the Reds on the ground where he'd suffered a season-ending injury in his first start for Jersey in November 2015.
Returning to the fray after half-time, the home side needed to get their hands on the ball, and during the third quarter they executed two mauled tries to cut the gap to 19-31, Pete Lydon adding one conversion and missing the other - the only unsuccessful kick of the 12 attempted on a glorious spring-like afternoon. Gary Graham left the field during this period after being identified and sin-binned as the culprit in a scuffle which caused a penalty to be reversed, and it was a relief for the Reds when Katz was able to increase the margin to 15 points with a penalty.
But the Exiles refused to lie down, and Lydon's eye for the gap and pace saw him grab a fourth try for his side with still 15 minutes to play. The Scots had one point, but still retained ambitions for five.
It was a relief for the significant number of Jersey supporters that their team were able to regain some control in the closing stages, with Graham returning and some resolute tackling. The one exception was when the Scottish backs worked Harries over in the corner with three minutes to play. There was still time for a home win, in theory, but the Reds refused to yield and soon afterwards were celebrating a notable victory.
Harvey Biljon and his side had been desperate to get back into action after 20 days without any live rugby, and this pent-up energy was evident in a first-half display that delighted the Head Coach.
"It was an exceptional first half, but just as everything went to plan before the break, we couldn't deliver in the second half what we'd talked about at half-time," he said. "Fair play to Scottish for the way they came back, but also to our players for holding out at the end.
"The three-week break meant we were hungry to get involved at the outset, but I also think it played a part in the way our levels dropped later in the game, and without making too many excuses, getting to London at 11pm rather than 4pm as scheduled wasn't ideal - Friday was a very long day, and it's regrettable we had to take the Athletic's flight booking - but there was no other option."
Exiles' Head Coach Peter Richards said: "I've never known us to be so out-classed upfront as we were in the first half. Jersey were really fresh and aggressive after their break, and they blew us away.
"We will take positives from the way we came back, but overall it's a disappointing outcome."
The outcome of the match, with the losing team scoring five tries to the winners' four, was the same as the March 2013 encounter at the Athletic Ground, when Jersey registered five tries and 33 points but were beaten by Scottish (four tries, 41 points).
The win saw the Reds leap-frog the Exiles into sixth spot in the Greene King IPA Championship, although maximum points for the teams in third, fourth and fifth place - Doncaster Knights, Ealing Trailfinders and Cornish Pirates - maintained their advantage over Jersey.
The Reds are back in action this Friday with their first home league match since New Year's Day. Second-placed Yorkshire Carnegie are the visitors for a match that will kick off under the St Peter floodlights at 7.45pm.
London Scottish (1-15)
Grant Shiells (YC 30), David Cherry, Dan Koroi, Rory Bartle (capt), Wilhelm van der Sluys, Ifereimi Boladau, Danny Kenny, Miller; Jamie Stevenson, George Cullen; Jason Harries, Ross Neal, Robbie Fergusson, Alec Coombes; Peter Lydon.
Replacements (all used): Matt Williams, Jonny Harris, Ewan McQuillin, Alex Woolford, Joe Atkinson, Ed Hoadley, Harry Sheppard.
Jersey Reds (1-15)
Jake Woolmore, Joe Buckle, Simon Kerrod, Dave McKern, Pierce Phillips, James Freeman (capt), Gary Graham (YC 56), Nick Haining; Kieran Hardy, Callum Sheedy; Nick Scott, Kuki Ma'afu, Jordan Davies, George Watkins; Sam Katz.
Replacements (all used): Sean McCarthy (for Woolmore 50 min), Jack Macfarlane (Buckle 57), Uili Kolo’ofa’I (McKern 62), Jake Armstrong (Kerrod 65), Max Argyle (Graham 66), Joel Dudley (Hardy 71), Graham (Freeman, Head Injury Assessment, 72), Lewis Robling (Watkins 78).
Referee: Greg Macdonald. Assistants: Roy Maybank, Brian Ravenhill
Tries: Stevenson 26, Cherry 48, Harries 58, 77, Lydon 63
Conversions: Lydon 26, 58, 63, 77
Tries: Kerrod 6, 20, Hardy 13, McKern 32
Conversions: Katz 6, 13, 20, 32
Penalties: Katz 10, 62, 79