THE Shoalhaven ExServicemens/Printer Corp first grade side opened the Illawarra District Rugby Union (IDRU) Competition for season 2014 with home games against long term rivals, Vikings.
With the recent heavy rains the ground was in amazingly good condition with a robust green tinge and solid under footings.
However the intermittent rain that fell during the afternoon caused a slippery ball which made for difficult handling for both teams.
In a tight and at times tough encounter, Shoals were defeated by Vikings by 27-17.
Vikings won mainly through having slightly better combinations, although Shoals never say die tackling kept them in yet another close encounter.
Shoals have begun another journey of team rebuilding as they move forward with a change of coach with John Sullivan taking up the club and first grade coaching position from Scott Jones.
Shoals lost a good part of their backline with the three brilliant Brandon brothers transferring to league and it will take some little time for the new combinations to settle.
But the changes do provide a marvelous opportunity for some of Shoals’ talented ex junior players to move up to the top grade.
Shoals forwards tore into the game from the outset.
With forwards of the calibre of props James Smith and Chris O’Connor, towering locks such as Mitch Hardy and loose forwards such as the effervescent Tom Horton and the hard tackling Adam Sargent, few teams in this competition will ride roughshod over this pack.
Smith in particular had a whale of a game with his bullocking runs and non-stop tackling and was a stand out in a fine forward display.
The game was a pretty even affair in the first half with the teams mainly working play through their forwards in a traditional softening-up approach. Shoals had the first opportunity to put their first points of the season on the scoreboard through a shot at penalty goal, but this swung just wide at the last moment.
The penalty was awarded after a dynamic burst up the centre by James Smith caused a desperate defence to cede the penalty.
Progressively Vikings got on a roll and using short sharp forward bursts they took play deep into Shoals’ territory.
At the 15 minute mark Shoals were caught offside and the resulting penalty goal gave Vikings an early three point lead.
For the next 20 minutes play was even and neither side could really make any real headway.
Sam Watts at half and Josh Dennis at five eighth, reunited from season 2013, clicked into a smooth gear and gave good service to their outside backs.
However lack of real cohesion caused some promising plays to break down.
However the tackling in midfield was outstanding as some of Vikings’ larger players often scouted out wide and tried to cause havoc though Shoals’ outside men.
They were cut down in their tracks with fierce front on tackles.
Shoals began to get their combinations working late in the first half and camped for a series of multi phases inside Vikings’ 20 metre line.
After going close to scoring several times, Shoals’ finally managed a determined forward surge which carried James Smith over the try line.
The conversion was successful and Shoals went to the break leading 7-3.
Vikings had slightly the better of the second half.
Shoals at times looked threatening but too often vital passes went astray and the opportunity to score was lost.
Vikings opened the scoring in the second half after 10 minutes with a good winger’s try out wide after the forwards created a solid platform.
They followed this up a few minutes later when their lightning fast half back took a gap near the ruck and scooted 30 metres to score near the posts.
The conversion took Vikings to an eight point lead.
Shoals hit back almost immediately after some inspired play by their full back took the ball from near the halfway line deep into Vikings’ side of the field. An error from Vikings from a lineout near their try line gave Shoals an opportunity which they embraced with relish and dropped on the ball over the line.
Although the conversion just missed, Shoals had drawn to within three points.
However within the space of 10 minutes Vikings racked up a further 12 points through two well-earned tries.
Their back line began to function with great efficiency and with deft handling, despite the conditions, their wingers flew over for a try apiece.
Shoals finished off the game with a late and magnificent flourish.
Their fullback and winger combined to return a clearing kick and then the ball was passed to James Smith roaring up in support.
He made ground then offloaded to Keegan Stevens, who raced away for a try started some 50 metres back.
The final whistle ended an absorbing tussle with Vikings running out winners by 27 points to 17.
Best players for Shoals were James Smith, Tom Horton and Sam Watts.
Shoals play next after the Easter break on Saturday, April 26 when they travel to Ocean Park for their always adventurous clash with Shamrocks.
They return to Shoalhaven Ricoh Rugby Park on Saturday, May 3 for what is inevitably a bruising match against the Avondale Wombats.