Following the previous week’s abandonment of the game as a result of the tragic death of Oakham player Savenaca Koroibulileka, known to all at the club as ‘Tu’, Oakham players held a meeting to decide whether to play on Saturday.
Urged by the family to play, because that is what Tu would have wanted, the players voted to play the fixture away at Rushden & Higham and they responded with a brave 27-7 victory in Midlands Two East South.
Emotions were running high as a minute’s silence was observed prior to kick off in memory of Tu.
Oakham then lined up to play down the slope in the first half and started brightly in the early exchanges but were unable to make much inroad into the Rushden defence.
With ten minutes gone Oakham were awarded a kickable penalty but decided to go for the corner, failed to win the lineout and the chance was gone.
Neither side was settling into any pattern of play and, with defences on top, the game was turning into a stalemate. Frequent heavy rain showers make handling very difficult for both sides.
From a period of pressure, which Oakham were defending quite comfortably, Rushden opted to decline a penalty attempt at goal in favour of a scrum from which a set move created an incisive break by their centre resulting in a try , the conversion was made leaving Oakham 7-0 down with 22 minutes played.
Oakham won an early turnover and fly half Dan Ray put in a good kick to the corner to set-up a lineout five metres out. Oakham stole the ball and drove for the line but the try was not awarded, the referee deciding the ball was held up.
Undeterred Oakham pressurised the Rushden line again as Stee Vukinavanua and Jamie Brett went close. With Rushden defending desperately Oakham finally made the breakthrough on the 30 minute mark ,following a catch and drive from a lineout, with Martyn Stimson touching down and the conversion by Jamie Bullett for 7-7.
Then just before half time Oakham took the lead as Jamie Bullett struck another penalty for 10-7 .
Oakham were undeterred by playing up the slope in the second half and within minutes of the restart had increased their lead. Taking good ball from the lineout a series of drives set-up space for the backs as Tom Burton cut a lovely line before taking a short pass to slice through the defence before drawing the full back and passing to Jonno Milnes who crossed near the posts, converted by Bullett for 17 -7.
With 20 minutes gone Rushden attacked down the wing but Will Armstrong saved the day with a superb tackle on their winger.
Rushden then set up camp near to Oakham’s line and with their scrum dominating it took a monumental effort from Oakham’s defence to hold them out. Hearts were in mouths as the referee awarded a third scrum penalty to Rushden but stopped short of awarding a penalty try.
Despite going backwards Oakham’s scrum held out brilliantly with the front row of young Ewan Cooper, Rhys Grieve and Tom Armstrong to the fore. Pressure was finally relieved as they were awarded a free kick which Dan Ray cleared to half way.
Oakham were now on top having sorted out their scrum problems and, with the lineout functioning well, were in control of possession. Following another series of pick and drives Vukinavanua ,desperately trying to score in honour of his absent friend Tu, was held up just short before scrum half Bullett darted over, failing to covert his own try with 10 minutes to play.
Rushden mounted a last ditch attack resulting in a scrum near to Oakham’s line. The Oaks held solid, won the ball and could possibly have scored as the ball was moved quickly to the wing but a deliberate slap down by a Rushden player stopped the final pass.
The resulting penalty was kicked into Rushden’s 22, lineout won and another drive to the line was foiled as Rushden stole the ball. Unfortunately for Rushden the relieving kick went straight to Oakham winger Alex Durno and he then outran the defence to score an unconverted try in the corner right on the final whistle. Adding the satisfaction of try bonus points and make the score 7-27.
It was a tough day for all concerned with emotional scenes at the final whistle as players broke down in tears but a fitting tribute shown to Tu who would have loved the battle. It was a game in which Oakham were under huge pressure for large parts but came up with a superb team effort.