Ealing Amateurs inched ever closer to winning Zoo Shield 3 South with a bonus-point victory over fourth-placed Esher, but were thankful for a flurry of late points after trailing at half-time in a scrappy game.
Playing into a stiff breeze, Ealing were unable to make their customary blistering start, and there was a notable lack of continuity from either side in a keenly contested first half. Esher operated close to the offside line throughout and were penalised a number of times, but looked the more likely to score in the opening quarter and duly took the lead on 24 minutes when a couple of missed tackles enabled them to exploit an overlap on the right, with the hooker touching down.
As the penalties for offside against Esher continued and a warning went unheeded, the referee finally lost patience around the half-hour mark and issued a ‘team’ yellow card. Despite being a man down, Esher came close to extending their lead three minutes later but were stopped by a knock-on in a thundering tackle by second-row Sean Kennett. As the half-time approached, Ealing finally started to exploit the extra man and flanker Mike Whitney came close to scoring. However, the maul was deliberately pulled down, earning Esher their second yellow card of the day at the exact moment that the previous miscreant emerged from the sin bin. Moments later the referee issued a third yellow card for persistent offside, and while Ealing pounded the line the home defence held firm to keep the half-time score at 5-0.
With the advantage of the breeze blowing straight down the pitch, Ealing began the second period confidently but were unable to score against the 13 men of Esher until a line-out on the 22 metre line was driven inexorably to the try line, with Whitney credited as the scorer. Full-back Steve Verma converted from half-way out. However, the win Ealing needed in their quest for league honours looked in serious doubt when incisive running by the Esher backs shortly after the sin bin was emptied led to a second try. Four minutes later the visitors regained the lead when a line-out won after centre Alex Hazell had forced an Esher defender into touch was driven on, Whitney again the scorer. The vital win was starting to look more likely as Ealing began to dominate proceedings, and the lead was stretched when Verma attacked down the right, the ball was swung left and fly-half Gerardo Minich probed the defence and passed to captain and No 8 Adam Hulmston, who notched his 11th try of the season. Despite having hooker Liam McDonagh given a team yellow card for coming in from the side, the visitors continued to dominate, with Stuart Miller enjoying a fine game at flanker. At 17-10 with three minutes to go the game was still not won, until a fine try by Hazell, running at a clever angle off scrum-half Victor Zelaya’s delayed pass, effectively settled the tie, with Verma adding the conversion. There was just enough time left for Kennett to gather an ill-directed clearance kick and, on Grand National Day, gallop all the way to the line for his seventh try since the turn of the year.
The Amateurs now have just one game left in their first season in Zoo Shield 3S, away to mid-table Chobham this Saturday.