Eltham went to the top of the Championship competition ladder after a hard-fought 27-12 win over a determined Bendigo Miners side in Bendigo last weekend. A somewhat complacent Eltham side, perhaps thinking about the bus trip home, were on the backfoot early with Bendigo going a try up within the first couple of minutes on the back of some strong running by some of the bigger units on the opposition side. A possible Eltham reply was stopped when a sideline run by Howie Simpson came to a shuddering halt courtesy of a blatant no-arms tackle by his opposite number, resulting, curiously enough, in a yellow card to both sides and a penalty to Bendigo. Bendigo dominated possession, in part because of Eltham’s inability to retain possession, much to the frustration of their supporters on the sideline. And despite not having played for three weeks, Bendigo had the better of play not only in the first half but for much of the match. That said, there is a gritty, uncompromising attitude about the Eltham defence, time and again denying Bendigo close to their line. What chances Eltham did have in the opposition 22 were few, but they took them. A lineout steal and a chip-kick by Eliah James resulted in a 5 metre scrum. A strong Eltham push, a couple of pick-and-drives and Jayden Curtin burrowed over to score, with Eliah adding the extras to level the scores at 7-7 before half-time.
A dominant Eltham scrum monstered the Bendigo pack early in the second half, allowing Eliah to nail a penalty from wide-out to give Eltham a 10-7 lead. However, attempts to recapture the expansive style of play displayed against Monash the week before consistently failed, with promising moves derailed by poor finishing, turnovers and failure to maintain possession. In reply, Bendigo showed no signs of fatigue, and launched a series of well-structured assaults on the Eltham defensive line, being rewarded with a try following a lineout close to the Eltham line, to hit the lead 12-7. With turnovers and penalties dominating, much of the match was played between the 22m lines. An Eltham steal,and a sublime pass from Aisea “Wise” Naulago put Michael Stent through a gap, who ran some 35 metres before stepping around the opposition fullback to score, with the conversation putting Eltham back into the lead at 17-12. Remarkably, at 20 minutes into the second half, this was probably only the second time in the half Eltham had entered Bendigo’s 22. A subsequent yellow card did not help the home side’s cause, while the strong Eltham scrum was causing havoc with the locals. A limping Rory Featherstone, carrying enough tape for a role in The Mummy, sneaked over to score after another dismantling of the Bendigo scrum. Eliah’s conversion, followed by a further penalty goal from some 35 metres out, delivered a final Eltham victory 27-12. Amongst many strong performances, the defensive effort of Taylor Ene was a deserving of the man-of-the match performance. As for the bus trip back, well, a veteran of many such trips said it was quite tame by comparison to what he had experienced….although the sight of a certain shirtless forward emerging from the bus with a torso decorated with felt pen tattoos did make me wonder about what happened on the back seat. A big thanks to Rhys Thomas for driving the bus, and to Richard Stent for running the line in the second half.