After a fair deal of agony and bucket-loads of grit and determination, there was ecstasy at the Stade as the Reds claimed a victory for the ages.
The win over old rivals Ealing Trailfinders took the Island side above their opponents to the top of the RFU Championship table, leaving the Reds knowing that a home victory over Ampthill next Saturday would clinch the title.
The six-point lead at the final whistle was the biggest margin of a game in which the lead changed hands six times, keeping a crowd of more than 3,000 spectators riveted throughout.
The first half, played in bright conditions with a southerly breeze blowing across from the clubhouse side, saw early opportunities from penalties for the home side, but Russell Bennet’s first touch-finder was off-target, and then a maul came to nothing a few minutes later. It was Trailfinders who struck first when Steven Shingler slotted a penalty in front of the posts after sustained pressure.
The home side’s response came on the back of a massive scrum effort that earned a penalty, with the resulting lineout led to a series of attacks that eventually saw Alex McHenry go through a gap to score.
Rob Farrar’s close-range try helped the visitors regain the lead early in the second quarter, but Sam Grahamslaw piled over for the Reds’ second try and the home side were able to retain their two-point lead until the break.
Ealing’s defence was a feature of a third quarter in which the Reds dominated possession and territory but could not score, the sky by this stage having turned dark and rain falling. The Londoners took advantage of a rare foray downfield, with Welsh international Jonah Holmes linking well with replacement Simon Uzokwe, to win another penalty, slotted by Shingler to take his side a point clear.
Red heads could have gone down as a result of earlier missed chances, notably a stolen ball from a maul near the Ealing posts when the home side had multiple options to score, and when an overthrown lineout landed in Steve Longwell’s hands but slipped out as the prop dived for the line.
The pivotal moment came with 15 minutes remaining, and was scored by Will Brown within five minutes of coming off the bench. The wing and Brendan Owen chased an awkward grubber from Jordan Holgate that was carried back over the line by Luke Daniels and then lost in an attempt to get out of the in-goal area. Owen grabbed the ball and wrestled with Daniels before being able to push it backwards to Brown, who picked up and dived over for his 13th league try of the season. Bennett added a fine conversion to make it 19-13.
The final minutes were beyond-tense for everyone present, with the running stadium clocks showing 80 minutes but the officials continuing the game to allow for an eventual total of around nine minutes of added time. James Mitchell, who had earlier delivered an outrageous 50:22 kick, dived over the try-line but the home side were penalised for crossing, while Bennett could have taken his side more than a score clear with a penalty from 45 metres, but the kick went wide and Ealing still had belief.
A penalty just inside their own half offered the chance for the visitors to move upfield, but Shingler missed touch. There was one more spell of Ealing possession, but they failed to advance into the Jersey 22 and eventually the ball was spilled, bringing the final whistle from referee Christophe Ridley.
The low-scoring encounter was in contrast to both side’s performances thus far in the league, with previous average points scored this season being 37 for the Reds and 43 for their opponents. The scale of the Reds’ defensive effort was such that Ealing failed to score at least three tries for the first time in 25 Championship outings.
The win also snapped the Reds’ run of 13 straight Championship losses to the Trailfinders, a sequence dating back to December 2015.
The destiny of the Championship trophy, won last April for the first time by Ealing, will be determined next Saturday. Two points clear at the top, the Reds know that a win over Ampthill at the Stade will take the title, while Ealing must achieve victory over Doncaster Knights at Castle Park and hope their rivals will slip up.
Having tried to maintain a ‘normal week’ approach in the build-up to the summit meeting, director of rugby Harvey Biljon was keen to celebrate the win, but also to remind players and supporters that the job was not finished.
He said: “The effort made by the whole group is hard to quantify – Ealing gave us a tough test, but our composure and ability to stick to task just made the difference.
“We have one more game to play and it’s not done yet – opportunities like this don’t come along very often and we’ve got to get our heads down on Monday and make it count.”
Ealing director of rugby Ben Ward said: “Jersey were worthy winners – they have really upped their game this season and have earned a really good opportunity to win a title they fully deserve.
“Going in at half-time I thought we were well in the game, but the weather changed and we probably didn’t adjust as well as we could have to that, and as well as our opponents did.”
Ward added: “I thought it was a great advert for this league and hope we can continue this rivalry with Jersey in the future.”
Pics by Rich Chapman
JERSEY REDS: Owen; Woollett, McHenry, Holgate (Barnes 67), Lewis (Brown 60); Bennett, Mitchell; Grahamslaw, Hadfield (Clarke 57), Longwell (Nicol 57), O’Connor (Bain 57), Cook, Dun, Wynne (capt), Lawrence. Unused replacements: McGrath, Argyle, Elliott.
EALING TRAILFINDERS: Holmes; Daniels, Bodilly, Howard, Earle; Shingler, Hampson; Gibbons (W Davis 53), Walker (Malton 71), G Davis (Kane 53), O'Connor, Maddison (capt) (Davidson 51), Farrar (Montgomery 74), Korczyk, Digby (Uzokwe 51). Unused replacements: Burns, Lancaster.
Referee: Christophe Ridley. Assistants: Simon Harding, Hamish Grant
Half Time: 12-10
Tries: McHenry 15, Grahamslaw 29, Brown 65
Conversions: Bennett 15, 65
Try: Farrar 22
Conversion: Shingler 22
Penalties: Shingler 11, 60
18 May 2023
DoR pays tribute to leaving players after title-winning season