Southampton Spitfires qualified for the South East division grand final for only the second time in the club's history yesterday, with a comprehensive 32-14 victory over the impressive Medway Dragons.
The two sides met for the second time in eight days, following the last game of the regular season at Medway the previous Saturday. On that occasion the Dragons turned in an emphatic performance to win 52-10 and take third place in the league table, a point behind the Spitfires who recorded their highest ever league placing despite the heavy defeat.
The top four play-off system is structured so that it rewards the teams fishing first and second with a home play-off semi final and therefore, in theory, a greater chance of qualifying for the grand final. That meant Portsmouth Seahawks(1st) would play Guildford Giants(4th) and Southampton Spitfires(2nd) would face Medway Dragons(3rd). The losing sides going out and the winners through to the final in one weeks time.
At a sun drenched Station Road Southampton welcomed back a host of first team regulars who had not been available for the trip to Kent the week before, similarly Medway made a handful of changes to the side that won in the league fixture. The mood in the Spitfires camp was one of quiet determination, galvanised by the late arrival of their opponents and the subsequently delayed kick-off.
When the action did finally get underway it was Southampton who got off to the better start, dominating possession and posting two early tries. First Richard O'Donnel scooted over for an unconverted try before Laurence Warren-West
barged through a gap to cross in the 8th minute, his try converted by young Aussie Morgan Burnette.
At 10-0 the visitors were struggling to shake off their nightmare journey but a series of pressure revealing penalties piggy-backed the Dragons into the Spitfires 20 and eventually the pressure told with a score wide to the left. The angle proved too much for the kicker but the visitors were off the mark.
The chance to gain early revenge for the league defeat was probably motivation enough for the Spitfires but add in the prospect of a grand final place, possibly against Portsmouth, and it was easy to see why Southampton were so pumped up for this game. The Spitfires were certainly in no mood to allow the Dragons to take control and when James Bovett
took matters into his own hand there was only ever going to be one outcome as he jinked his was over out wide to restore the home side's ten point advantage. Burnette missed the difficult conversion.
Medway have shown their quality all season with some impressive performances against the top sides coming off the back of a well drilled defence and potent attacking options. It took them until the thirtieth minute to record their next score when again harsh penalties gifted them a repeat set in the Spitfires half. Again the pressure told with a try by the posts, the simple conversion followed from just to the left of the uprights, narrowing the arrears to 14-10.
The sporadic scoring was perhaps too far apart to be labelled end to end rugby but the scoring pattern kept the game closer than it perhaps ought to have been. Medway proving that they weren't simply there to make up the numbers somehow managed to keep themselves within touching distance of their hosts with a combination of timely scores and last ditch defence.
Again though it was Bovett who provided the difference in a tight first half, popping up to bag his second try of the game two minutes from the break. The conversion sailed wide leaving the score at 18-10.
Shortly after half time news of the women's teams Grand Final win at West London Sharks filtered through, adding extra inspiration for the men's side who were beginning to dominate their own fixture. First Medway lost a player with a suspected dislocated jaw and then another went down with a broken finger, leaving their bench resources extremely thin. Spitfires did suffer an injury of their own late on when Connor Ford
took a high ball damaging a knee ligament on landing. Ford's injury was disappointing but it didn't disrupt the Spitfires momentum in the same way as the Dragons woes.
came back into the side after a stint with the English Lions and marked his return with a trademark angled run to take a great short pass and burst through the Medway defensive line to ground wide on the right. Bovett missed the conversion.
Again though Medway fought their way back into contention crossing for an unconverted score in the left corner on 50 minutes but third injury wiped out what was left of the Medway bench, leaving them with around twenty-five minutes to play and no possibility of making any more interchanges. The greater strength of the Spitfires bench provided the game breaker as the home side were able to maintain the pressure on a wilting Dragons side.
A brief flare-up at the play the ball caused a brawl in the 62nd minute but all that was required was a word to the two captains from the referee and order was restored without incident.
A couple of minutes later, Spitfires regained possession and attacked on the right flank. From a set play Kris Ford took the ball of the game on to crash through the Medway line at top speed, it was as emphatic a try as you're ever likely to see at this level and it was clear that the players thought it was a game winner. The team briefly celebrated the try before captain Mark Amey
restored their composure, doing a fine job of pulling his players focus back towards closing the game out properly, the score coming in the 65th minute.
Medway rarely threatened again, starved of possession and sapped by the heat and the defensive effort caused by their bench problems and with seven minutes remaining Oli Johnson
broke through a tired tackle thirty meters out with another diagonal run before curving around the cover defence and grounding the ball three meters to the right of the posts. Bovett added the extras for a 32-14 lead.
The final minutes of the game were dominated by the home side who controlled the ball well right up to the final whistle.