It is a measure of how far Sevenoaks has come to be able to win when not playing well, and be disappointed, despite confirming their place at the fourth level of national rugby next season, not to have gained the bonus point confirming them as league winners. That must wait for two weeks’ time, when the men from the Paddock play Hertford at home, requiring only one point to be crowned champions.
The coaching staff, team and whole club should be immensely proud of their achievement, in what is only their third season in the London & SE Premier league, with one of those incomplete as a result of Covid. Oaks will be the first to admit, Saturday saw one of their least impressive performances of the season against a much-improved Maidenhead side deserving credit for pressurising Oaks into making numerous errors and offering a real scoring threat themselves, in a game played in the glare of the sun on a fast 4G pitch. In truth, the home team will rue a missed penalty that would have given them the lead with only five minutes remaining and the bouncing ball just beating their chasing backs, running out of play beyond the Oaks’ in-goal area late in the game, which may have given them an unassailable lead. That said, the Kent men did enough, showing the character that has been their trademark throughout the campaign. Their usual lineout reliability and attacking precision was not as it has been, but they held their nerve, scoring their third try with the last play of the game to confirm victory. A nerve-wracking day concluding with promotion confirmed.
The game kicked with neither team able to build momentum or control, both frequently penalised at the breakdown and committing too many handling errors. Oaks had a marginal territorial advantage for the first quarter but failed to capitalise from their attacking lineouts. A breakaway by Maidenhead, a characteristic throughout the game, and Oaks’ Ben Adams showcasing his football skills with a thirty-metre dribble towards the try line, were the closest both teams came to scoring until the 23rd minute. After a period of pressure, from a scrum, Oaks went through their familiar pick-and-go processes, this time without error, with Matt McRae scoring; the try converted to lead 0-7.
Unfortunately, some loose kicking by the visitors gave Maidenhead momentum, but they failed to convert a three-point penalty opportunity after 28 minutes. However, they maintained territory and from a scrappy lineout of their own found a big gap in the Oaks’ defence to score a try. The conversion was missed; 5-7. On 35 minutes an Oaks’ attacking lineout went astray, the home team broke forcing the Kent men into committing a series of infringements in their own half, the last close enough for Maidenhead to take the three points. The half time whistle blew with Maidenhead leading 8-7, leaving the field believing they could win, whilst Oaks knew a step up in precision and intensity would be needed in the second half.
Unfortunately, a knock on immediately from the kickoff invited pressure in the Oaks’ 22, leading to a yellow card to Drew Forrester for not rolling away. From the penalty, a lineout followed, and Maidenhead scored in the corner; the try converted for them to lead 15-7 after 43 minutes.
There followed a good response from Oaks, who broke the line, arriving in front of the Maidenhead posts, the home team to be pinged for not rolling away. Turning down the three points, Oaks kept the pressure on, a yellow card was awarded to the Maidenhead number 4 for pulling down the maul and eventually a cross-field kick by Oaks’ fly-half Patrick Pellegrini was caught by Ben Adams to score; converted 15-14 after 50 minutes.
The next 15 minutes saw Oaks on top, making several half breaks and having a number of try scoring opportunities near the home team’s line. However, too many errors at crucial times, combined with poor decision making stopped the points arriving. Maidenhead rallied, but this time Oaks broke away, the home team infringed, and Ben Adams gave his team a narrow 15-17 lead with a successful penalty kick: 71 minutes.
The game entered its final phase with a yellow card awarded to the Maidenhead prop for a high tackle. Oaks’ attacking play followed but again they were penalised when going forward near the home team’s line, relieving pressure and keeping the game in the balance. Maidenhead took advantage and broke up field to win two penalties in quick succession, leaving them a late three-point opportunity, which they missed. Relief for Oaks, followed by a superb break by Pellegrini leading to winning a penalty in front of the posts. Bizarrely the men from the Paddock kicked for touch instead of taking a certain five-point lead, and it nearly cost them dear as Maidenhead scrummed down under their own posts, broke out and kicked a loose ball 60 metres up to, and beyond, the Oaks in-goal area. A let-off for the visitors. The final play of the game saw Oaks move the ball well across the backs for Ben Adams to score. The conversion was missed, and Sevenoaks claimed a nervy 15-22 victory.
After the game Director of Rugby Adam Bowman said “credit to Maidenhead, they performed very well today and really put us under a huge amount of pressure. We were below par today, far too many errors and our game management was poor. That said, we ground out an important win which means we are officially promoted. This is a huge achievement, and everyone involved should be incredibly proud of what we have achieved this season.”
A break for Easter, and then Sevenoaks will be at home to Hertford for the final game of the season, in search of one more point secure top position in the table.