Exiles coach Henry van Niekerk is trying to introduce a bit of flair to Swedish rugby. It was great to see the final team presented individually on Facebook, to have a jersey presentation before the game, a great Exiles promotional film was shown as pre-match motivation and to have about 30 of the Exiles youngsters lined up to cheer the team on to the pitch. The weather was of course a disaster, but Stockholm can be like that in October, and a crowd of about 300 congregated to see the Championship decider. A lot of freebies of course and nothing like the 550 paying down in a sunny Trelleborg.
Pingvin started strongly with a certain amount of ping-pong as both teams kicked for position. One such kick by Dustin gave a penalty which Neill converted after 8”. Kicking from both sides continued with Pingvins scrum-half Matthew Keene finding touch near the line on several occasions.
Half-way through the first half Exiles seemed to be getting on top but Pingvin kicked themselves into a penalty position which they failed to convert. On 28” Pingvin had a first dangerous attack from their backs but strong tackling snuffed it out.
The Exiles No 8 Franco then had one of his trademark runs and Exiles were beginning to seriously challenge the Pingvin line. Keane got back several times as a last line of defence when Exiles seemed likely to score and there was a huge miss by Exiles on 33” when the ball was dropped a few yards from the line with a two-man overlap.
The Exiles pack completely dominated in the set pieces as in the first final, but the lineouts were letting them down again and giving Pingvin possession. They used this to kick to the corner and a sustained period of pressure was exerted before centre Erik Arvidsson found a gap to score on the halftime whistle. Campbell converted and it was 7 – 3 to the visitors. Exiles probably had the edge in the first half but it was a tough attritional battle with very little between the two teams.
The second half was uneventful in terms of points but both teams were fighting for their lives. Exiles were still 5 points ahead on aggregate but a converted try would give Pingvin the title. Play ranged back and forward in the middle of the pitch with Exiles once again just having territorial advantage. Penalties were missed by both sides. Exiles continued to push Pingvin back yards in every scrum and they were beginning to win more and more lineouts. I don´t think Pingvin were ever in the Exiles 22m. in the second half, the nearest being a positional kick landing just outside.
With the clock ticking, Neill finally put over another penalty to put Exiles 8 points or two scores ahead. With only a couple of minutes to go it was soon all over and Exiles had retained their title. Probably the best game of the season with easily the two best teams fighting it out to the death. The weather was a factor of course with a number of passes dropped but you have to be able to play in all weathers to win titles. The referee Jacob Bäverstam handled the game well and it was played in an excellent spirit.
For Pingvin, scrum-half Matthew Keane is half the team (it is still not clear if he will be returning next year) and the two centres Micah Barber and Erik Arvidsson worked hard all afternoon. Lock Oscar Larsson had some bullocking runs when standing in the backs and a special word for debutant hooker Anthony Raphael aged 19, who was under pressure in the scrum throughout but still managed to do very well in open play.
For Exiles, Dustin was his usual steady self and Ian was always dangerous when coming into the line from fullback. The back row was excellent with Neex always near the ball and Franco always threatening. And well done the various front rows who have been unchallenged all season.
The trophy was presented by SRF chairperson Madeleine Lahti, after what is believed to be the first time she has ever seen Exiles play. SRF board member Pasi Niemelä has also written an excellent match report along with coverage of other matches.