The near Arctic conditions on the bank of the Thames in South London made handling and ball retention difficult in the extreme. Both sides deserve credit for battling it out to the end, but it was Exiles who made a better fist of it and took their chances when they came.
Through injuries and unavailability coach Gareth Martin was stripped of key personnel, and found himself playing at scrum half for much of the first half with Tom Forster suffering a GPS malfunction in South London.
Exiles opened the scoring with a penalty from wide out on the 22 after five minutes, but much of the first half was fought out in the middle of the pitch. Exiles extended the lead with their No 8 bumping off a tackle before going over from short range.
Winchester were now settling into the game. The forwards were beginning to adjust to the conditions and take the game to the Exiles. Following a superb turnover from flanker Steve Walker the ball moved quickly through the hands to fullback Ollie Dunger who had joined the line. Dunger showed a sizzling turn of pace to score wide out. His well-struck conversion kick was caught by the wind and sailed past the uprights.
Winchester then got their noses in front for the first time. The quicksilver playmaker Jesse Ribeiro, playing his first senior game at fly-half, broke through the Exiles line before setting up outside centre Will Wood to rocket 30 metres to score under the posts. Dunger added the extras. Shortly before the half-time whistle Forster joined the game and Winchester were able to reorganise their pack. Winchester held on to a 12-10 lead up to the break. During the interval both teams huddled on the touchline for warmth with the referee agreeing to restart after the briefest time-out.
After the break it was Exiles who now had the advantage of a gusting wind. However time after time both sides saw their line-out throws going askew but under the circumstances it was forgivable. Dominic Wandless replaced Ribeiro who was unsteady on his feet following a collision and further reorganisation followed when Winchester were exposed wide out and skipper Jim Beavan took one for the team and a trip to the bin for his pains.
Exiles regained the lead with a penalty and extended their advantage when a series of sharp off-loads and smart support play led to a try under the posts. At 20-12 down Winchester had to score twice to secure the points that are crucial if they are to continue to play rugby at Level 7.
But Winchester were now playing with momentum and purpose. A break by debutant winger Keir Garner allowed Winchester to swarm upfield. Frantic Exiles defence could not prevent prop Ben Turner from diving over from short range. Again Dunger’s conversion was caught by the a swirling gust and taken wide.
It looked to be game on. Winchester tails were up and a win was on the cards. As the game neared its close Exiles withstood phase after phase of pressure with Winchester dominating the final minutes. The referee's final whistle denied them and they headed for a hot bath with a losing bonus point.
Other results condemned Winchester to bottom place in the RFU's London 2 South-West league. The last three matches will be a relegation scrap between Winchester and local rivals Andover and Eastleigh. To be sure of staying up, Winchester need to win away against Effingham and Leatherhead this Saturday, and at home against Farnham on the 7th April and Gosport and Fareham a week later.
Ollie Dunger; Dan Beagan, Will Wood, Josh Tolan, Keir Garner, Jesse Ribeiro, Tom Forster; Ben Turner, John Juleff, Jim Beavan, Matt Golding, Campbell Ettinger, Alec Hiscock, Steve Walker, Gareth Martin
Substitute: Dom Wandless
Tries: Ollie Dunger, Ben Turner, Will Wood
Conversion: Ollie Dunger
Updated 15:19 - 18 Mar 2018 by Tim Fell