Four games ago both Tunbridge Wells and Sidcup hovered on the verge of the relegation battle in the London & South East Premier League. However, the Kent rivals had struck such rich veins of form that by the time they met at St Marks the teams had risen to mid-table safety, sitting 8th and 9th respectively on 60 points. Wells had won three and drawn one of these four games whilst the visitors had won their last four so this was very much a case of two in-form sides meeting with county “bragging rights” at stake. Games between the two clubs had been tight affairs in recent years and this had been evident again when the sides played in South London before Christmas where Sidcup triumphed 10-9.
Tunbridge Wells made two changes to the starting team from the win against Dorking with Carl Straeche and Ben Isbell stepping up from the bench to replace the unavailable Aston Croall and the suspended Nick Doherty. Josh Pankhurst, Christian Earle and Jake Caddy returned to the squad as replacements.
Wells kicked off down the St Marks hill with the strong south-easterly win behind them. The home side started on the front foot but a loose pass from Frank Reynolds to Mike Doherty brought the attack to a halt. This was to epitomise a lack of precision that characterised much of the boys in blue’s attacking play in the opening period and another factor was ill discipline that saw the excellent referee penalise Wells frequently. An offside penalty was followed by a tackle offence and on 4 minutes Sidcup outside half Josh Twyford slotted a 35 metre penalty into the wind for a 0-3 lead.
Dave Allen (in what is likely to be his last home game before retirement) and Doherty were evident throughout with ball in hand but whenever Wells lost the ball Sidcup were quick to pounce, sending the ball back into Wells territory. It needed a fine Charlie Rigby clearance kick to relieve the pressure. This was just temporary relief though and when a Reynolds kick was blocked it needed an alert Matt Symonds to recover the ball. A series of attacking line-outs and scrums for the visitors ensued but with the front row of Straeche, Stuart Nicholls and Brendan Crosilla having a clear edge in the scrums, the home team were able to keep the visitors at bay.
Eventually, Wells did get a foot hold in Sidcup territory after strong Allen and Mike Hathaway runs. Even though they could not retain possession Josh Hawkins charged down the attempted clearance kick and looked likely to score a try before the ball skipped away from him on the firm spring ground. Doherty made two good half-breaks but just as he looked about to escape fine last-ditch tackles kept him at bay. This was to prove just a temporary hindrance though. An attacking penalty earned another scrum penalty and from this one Rigby was able to feed Doherty who crashed through two tackles to score a deserved try under the posts making Reynolds’ conversion a simple one on 30 minutes. 7-3.
A raking George Montgomery 50 metre clearance put Wells back into Sidcup territory but the visitors exhibited an effective “catch and drive” game all day and used this to relieve pressure. Indeed, it was they who had the next opportunity but a long-range Twyford penalty fell short into the wind. The men in white looked the more likely to score at this stage but a fine Lucas Scully defensive kick gained 40 metres.
As half-time approached, play was halted as a scuffle took place, much against the spirit of the match to date, which ultimately saw both Wells’ lock Hawkins and Sidcup’s scrum half James Munton sent to the sin-bin for 10 minutes. Sidcup were awarded a penalty but the home-team held firm against the attacking line-out to take a 7-3 lead into half time.
There were understandable concerns as to whether this slim lead would prove sufficient playing up the slope and into the wind but in the wise words of the club President “the wind and slope never makes a lot of difference to us” given the ball-in-hand ambition and nature of the Wells’ play. What was needed was more control and slicker play when in possession and there were to be enough periods of this to secure the win.
However, yet again, the initial signs were ominous as the home side failed to deal with Sidcup s kick-off. This led to an attacking line-out 25 metres out and whilst Wells were aware an attacking catch and drive was the most likely option, knowing it and stopping it are two different things! After moving inexorably forward for 15 metres the maul had seemed to come to a halt but Sidcup remained patient. A second surge then built more momentum and it was second row Joe Thomas who got up with the ball having scored the try. Twyford’s conversion made it 7-10 on 42 minutes.
Sidcup were soon back on attack after a clever Jamie Cutler kick but Wells exhibited super skill sets when great hands from Isbell to fellow Academy-product Scully released the winger into space. He had Montgomery in support but opted to kick-ahead and not only did the ball evade the chasers but Sidcup ran it back and it needed a typically robust Hathaway tackle to bring this to a halt. From the turnover it was Wells who went close as Reynolds was thwarted deep in Sidcup territory. Max Hobbs came off his wing at the attacking scrum but when the ball was spun wide it was lost and Sidcup were able to clear. On 50 minutes hooker Pankhurst replaced Straeche, who had been powerful in the tight, and Nicholls moved sideways to prop.
Sidcup now camped in Wells’ half for 10 minutes but could not turn this pressure into points. Crosilla, Pankhurst and Isbell made big tackles as the blue defensive line held firm. Caddy made a welcome return from injury to replace Scully and soon after Wells regained their lead through a superb individual try. There did not seem to be that much threat when the ball was fed to Doherty on the blind-side 40 metres out but he beat two men with pace and guile before showing strength to power through the last tackle for a terrific try. He had touched down wide on he left making the conversion seemingly impossible for Reynolds into the wind but he struck the ball magnificently to make it 14-10 on 61 minutes.
Shortly after skipper Ryan Taylor-Dennehy, Hobbs and Caddy linked well and a high tackle saw a home line-out 35 metres out. Sidcup were then caught offside and Reynolds cleverly used the wind to send the penalty kick through the posts from 30 metres out on 66 minutes. 17-10.
A fierce Hathaway run from the re-start took Wells back up-field and when Hobbs contested a Rigby box-kick he earned another penalty. This time, though, Reynolds’ penalty shot fell just short. A period of aerial “tennis” then took place before a high tackle by Allen saw the stalwart number 8 given a yellow card and 10 minutes in the sin-bin. With ten minutes of normal time to play could Sidcup take immediate advantage?
The answer was to be a resounding “no”. Their attacking line-out saw a forward drive up the middle but Hathaway secured a crucial tackle turnover and penalty. Into the wind Montgomery took a clever quick tap penalty before linking with Taylor-Dennehy to bring the ball clear. The ball was moved across the pitch and Isbell looked to have released Nicholls for a gallop to glory but the ball went down. Earle now joined the fray for the hard-working Symonds.
Sidcup had several more attacking opportunities but the combination of imprecision and intense pressure from the home side kept them at bay. Reynolds made a long clearance kick and Caddy made good ground via a run as Wells endeavoured to run down the clock. Allen returned and immediately Wells turned over a Sidcup scrum. Time was up and Wells had just edged a hard-fought match.
With one last game to play (away to 5th placed Hertford) Wells move up to 7th on 64 points but will be looking for a win to end their season on as they know that should a series of results go against them they could yet drop to 10th. Kick off is at 3pm and all travelling support will be very welcome.
Squad: Ryan Taylor-Dennehy (Capt); Lucas Scully, (Jake Caddy), Mike Doherty, George Montgomery, Max Hobbs; Frank Reynolds, Charlie Rigby; Carl Straeche (Josh Pankhurst), Stuart Nicholls, Brendan Crosilla, Josh Hawkins, Matt Symonds (Christian Earle), Ben Isbell, Mike Hathaway, Dave Allen.
By Graham Withers
In good conditions for running rugby Wells played up hill in the first half against a Sidcup side flirting with relegation. Max Douch kept the scrum half role, Brendan Crosilla was withdrawn after back spasms to be replaced by Carl Straeche, and Andy Burgess started in the second row.
However, apart from the first five minutes where Wells announced their intention of playing wide they hardly put a hand on the ball for the next 20 minutes as a clearly motivated Sidcup side battered the home defensive line. Wells defence and Sidcup possession were to dominate the afternoon and ultimately determine the victor.
Wells did get onto the scoreboard first with a Frank Reynolds penalty in the 14th minute but could still not achieve more than a 20% share of the ball. For the most part the Wells defence was very solid but after two successive penalties up the touchline Sidcup saw their chance to use their physicality and inexorably rolled a maul over in the left hand corner for NO 8 Freddy Ruff to score the try and full back Josh Twyford to notch the conversion 3-7 after 25 minutes.
Wells though with what ball they enjoyed- mainly kicked to them by the Sidcup halfbacks- decided to live by the sword and on 28 minutes player coach Dave Allen launched a counter attack from deep in the home half which covered 70 metres as the ball went through several pairs of hands to find centre Mike Doherty who knifed through for the try. 8-7.
The rest of the half saw a similar pattern as Wells went close, with a diagonal kick from Reynolds to Nick Doherty who popped up on the wing.
Halftime arrived with no further score and with both sides capable of a win. Head Coach Simon Whatling would have stressed Wells potency out wide and Sidcup will have emphasised the power of their pack in close quarter play.
Wells commenced the second half having to display their defensive skills again Christian Earle, Dave Allen, Mike Hathaway and Shadyn Osgood particularly to the fore but after 45 minutes another penalty to the corner saw Sidcup roll the maul again from the line out. The maul collapsed on the line and the referee gave a penalty try and sent Mike Hathaway to the touchline with a yellow card. 8-14.
Wells then produced a calibre of defensive play across the team which ultimately won them the game as they prevented Sidcup from scoring or getting over the gain line very regularly until Hathaway’s return. As soon as he reappeared Wells struck with another length of the field counter attack initiated by captain Ryan Taylor- Dennehy from a Sidcup kick with wing Max Hobbs claiming the try and Frank Reynolds the conversion on 57 minutes 15-14.
Wells then showed with more of a share of the ball that the last 20 minutes is critical as they turned a penalty into a rolling maul and gave Sidcup a taste of their own medicine as Ben Williams peeled off to score and Reynolds to convert on 72 minutes.22-14.
Within another 2 minutes with Sidcup now playing catch up rugby a loose pass on their right wing was intercepted by Blaise Salle -on for Matt Spicer . Salle showed tremendous acceleration as he left his own 22 and arrived in the visitors to find centre Shadyn Osgood on his shoulder to take the inside pass and score close to the posts with Reynolds again converting 29-14 75 minutes.
From the kick off Wells failed to secure the ball and an offside forward gave Sidcup the chance of another rolling maul from the line out again with a similar result as No 8 Ruff grabbed his second try with Twyford converting on 78 minutes 29-21.
With full time beckoning Wells continued to attack down the left and when it broke down Sidcup saw a chance of at least a losing bonus point but Wells tackling again kept the visitors pinned in their own 22 until the final whistle went to seal their third victory in a row and their third try bonus in a row.
This Saturday sees a rest week before Wells travel to Essex side Westcliff. If they win then a 5th place beckons in this tough league. Coach Whatling will be happy with Wells current form and that of the towns second team who after a narrow win against Medway move into the top 3 in the County Invicta 1 league .
Squad: Ben Williams, Josh Pankhurst, Carl Straeche, Kyle McGarvie, Andy Burgess, Christian Earle, Dave Allen, Mike Hathaway, Nick Doherty, Toby Talbot, Max Douch, Frank Reynolds, Max Hobbs, Mike Doherty, Shadyn Osgood, Matt Spicer, Blaise Salle, Ryan Taylor Dennehy.
After three successive defeats, Head Coach Simon Whatling will have been seeking a response from his players when his Tunbridge Wells team travelled “up the road” to Sidcup and, simply put, he could not have asked more. This was comfortably Wells’ strongest all-round performance of their first campaign at this level.
A warm welcome off the pitch before-hand was always likely to be replicated by a “warm” welcome on the field of play despite a bitterly cold cross-field northerly wind. This was the second of Wells’ four Kent derby games this season and the team from St Marks were looking for revenge over Sidcup having lost both games last year when the teams clashed in London One South before gaining promotion together. Sidcup sat 7th in the league two points ahead of Wells with the visitors in 10th but by the time they left south London these positions had been reversed.
Wells were delighted to welcome back prop Brendan Crosilla and influential outside-half Frank Reynolds after injury, and on paper at least the squad looked as strong as any that had taken to the field this season.
Wells kicked off and the tempo of the game was set instantly with it being nearly 2 minutes before the first break in play. Crosilla and flanker Dave Allen (who was to be hugely influential all game) carried strongly and Reynolds was back orchestrating play. Max Douch looked for work off his wing position and a half-break by him led to a 40 metre territorial kick by Reynolds pinning the home team back in to their own 22. Wells soon forced an attacking line-out which was taken by lock Owain Withers and a maul was set. The carrying work of Crosilla was evident throughout and he and hooker Luke Hawkins were prominent again before a deft Blaise Salle pass popped Christian Earle into space and the athletic forward galloped 15 metres to the posts for a try converted by Reynolds on 6 minutes. An good start. 0-7.
Before long a searching 45 metre kick from impressive full-back Ryan Taylor-Dennehy had Wells on the front foot again and on 11 minutes Reynolds extended the lead with a penalty kick. 0-10.
Wells felt aggrieved when Allen was penalised from the re-start for not releasing in the tackle when he did not appear to be held but this only served to fire up the experienced campaigner even more. The visitors defended the ensuing line-out well but on 14 minutes Josh Twyford converted a penalty goal from 35 metres to make it 3-10.
A Reynolds kick and massive Shaydn Osgood follow-up tackle (and his powerful defence and carrying was another key feature of the game) gave Wells a scrum just inside the Sidcup half. Tyalor-Dennehy and Crosilla took the ball forward before Reynolds cleverly put Osgood into space. He beat two men making 20 metres before feeding Nick Doherty who easily brushed aside a tackle to score a try under the posts. With the Reynolds conversion Wells were 17-3 up after 22 minutes and this was a fair reflection of their excellent first quarter.
Wells continued to show a desire to be pro-active in attack with tip passes and strong counter-attacks making space and yardage. The line-out functioned impressively all day with Hawkins hitting Earle, Withers and Mike Hathaway with aplomb. The scrum was also more robust and with the pressure Osgood and Mike Doherty were exerting in midfield, Sidcup were hanging on at this stage. However, Wells could not quite turn their pressure into points and on 34 minutes it was Sidcup who scored next via a second Twyford penalty. 6-17. Wells now had one of their sadly customary discipline “lapses” as the referee awarded a series of penalties for breakdown infringements. Eventually, Twyford was back in kicking range again and on 38 minutes he made it 9-17.
The visitors needed another score to more fully reflect their first half superiority and it was to come as the game moved into stoppage time. A penalty was sent 40 metres into touch to set up an attacking line-out. Hathaway soared to catch the ball and after Crosilla and Allen were denied at close range it was Earle who powered over for his second try. With a fine Reynolds conversion Wells were able to take an impressive 24-9 lead into half-time.
What was needed now was more of the same to prevent a tenacious Sidcup team from getting back into the game. To the delight of the travelling support this is exactly what happened. When Sidcup fumbled the ball 35 metres out Withers was on hand to show excellent footballing skills and kick through. Douch flew forward to gather the ball but was thwarted just short of the line. However, quick recycling saw the ball in Allen’s hands and he crashed over for a well-deserved try on 42 minutes. It was converted by Reynolds and it also secured the try bonus point. 9-31.
With strong tackles from Salle and Douch, Sidcup could not get out of their own half and when they did try a speculative kick it was fielded by Taylor-Dennehy on his own 10 metre line. He broke the first two tackles before beating the next defender on the outside and then another on the inside to sprint clear for an outstanding individual try on 47 minutes. 9-36.
With a vocal home support Sidcup were determined to get back in the match and on 50 minutes a strong rolling maul eventually saw James Poland dot down for an unconverted try. 14-36. Shortly afterwards a fine combined tackle by Allen and Douch thwarted a Sidcup counter-attack but it sadly saw the latter dislocate his knee and leave the field. It was an unfortunate end to what had been an impressive display from the young wing. Matt Spicer entered the fray.
Sidcup were experiencing by far their best phase of the game now as Wells started to concede penalties. Messrs Allen, Earle, and Osgood engaged in some fine rear-guard defence but the pressure eventually told when home forward Luke Coughlan looped around a line-out to break two uncharacteristically weak tackles to cross under the posts on the hour. With Twyford’s conversion it was now 21-36.
However, the momentum that Sidcup had built came to an end just three minutes later. Allen intercepted a stray Sidcup pass and as he looked to stride clear he was adjudged to have been tackled high by Jack Dutton, preventing him from making a material advantage of his fine work, and the home lock was sent to the sin bin. Wells were to turn the screw in a very professional manner. Reynolds sent a long kick into the Sicdup 22 and whilst Wells were unable to take advantage of the line-out a powerful scrummage soon turned the ball over. Hawkins and Allen went close but were thwarted before a penalty was awarded. Taking advantage of the yellow card, the visitors opted for a scrum sensing that Crosilla, Hawkins and Carl Straeche now had the edge over the de-powered home pack and this was to prove the case as they marched back their opponents for Nick Doherty to secure his brace of tries at number eight on 67 minutes. 21-41.
Withers gathered the re-start and Wells were back on the attack. Skipper Chaz Spence must have been delighted at the way his team were playing and he had no small part in it himself with his mix of box-kicking, knowing when to bring his big forward runners into play and then when to attack wider with the final Wells try being a perfect example of this. Hawkins hit Hathaway at the tail of the line-out and Spence unleashed his forward runners with Allen and Crosilla again making good yardage. Sensing the opportunity, the scrum half fed the powerful Osgood who burst down the blind-side before feeding Taylor-Dennehy to coast home from 20 metres. A superb team try which deserved the excellent Reynolds conversion it got to make it 21-48 on 73 minutes.
Kyle McGarvie and Mac Popham now replaced Crosilla and Allen, who left to rapturous applause from the Wells faithful. Soon after another huge Osgood tackle dislodged the ball and Spicer kicked through. Just as he looked likely to gather and score, the ball evaded him and fine work by the covering Sidcup defender saw them set off on a counter-attack that brought an attacking penalty. Another series of penalties followed as the boys in navy and white tried to hold out but eventually home hooker Charlie Hopkins scored a third Sidcup try in the final play of the game. Full time. 26-48.
After narrowly succumbing to the new league leaders Hertford three games ago, Wells would have been bitterly disappointed at the way they lost to Dorking and Southend Saxons thereafter. What this game showed is that when they have their First XV available and play like this, they will be a challenge for all the sides in this league. This was a powerful team display epitomised by the efforts of Taylor-Dennehy, Osgood, Reynolds, Crosilla and Allen but everyone contributed to a cracking win. The key will be to keep up this level of intensity and skill, and to maintain this kind of performance throughout the season, especially when given the attritional nature of this league there will no doubt be injuries and absences to deal with along the way. However, the players have now set themselves a high benchmark and that is no bad thing.
This win moves Wells back to 7th on 30 points – exactly 17 points behind table-topping Hertford and 17 points above Westcombe Park who occupy the final relegation spot. Mid-table but hopefully now casting an eye upwards rather than looking down at the relegation battle. The tough games keep coming though and next-week Wells host Essex side Westcliff, who have won 4 of their last 6 matches and sit 5th. Kick-off is 2pm and all support will be gratefully received.
Squad: Ryan Taylor-Dennehy; Blaise Salle, Mike Doherty, Shaydn Osgood, Max Douch (Matt Spicer); Frank Reynolds, Chaz Spence (Capt); Brendan Crosilla (Kyle McGarvie), Luke Hawkins, Carl Straeche, Christian Earle, Owain Withers, Mike Hathaway, Dave Allen (Mac Popham), Nick Doherty.