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Tunbridge Wells hosted Dorking at St Marks in a game that saw 6th take on 7th in a match that was always likely to be highly competitive.
Wells were hoping to put on a show as they bid farewell to club captain Chas Spence who now travels to Australia to further his rugby education and there was also a sense of unfinished business from when the teams first met on “Bonfire Night”in Surrey. An under-strength Wells were heavily beaten 42-7 in arguably their most disappointing performance of the season. It was a win Dorking clearly enjoyed that day but the boys from St Marks were keen to ensure that the only fireworks this time around came wrapped in blue and white.
Head Coach Simon Whatling was forced to make changes after the previous week’s impressive win at Southend. Max Douch started this time to replace Spence at scrum half, with Richard Webster coming on to the bench. The powerful Shaydn Osgood returned at centre after injury whilst in the forwards the ever-popular Andy Burgess came back into the second row enabling Mike Hathaway to move to his preferred back row slot. Luke Hawkins also returned as forward substitute cover. Full back Ryan Taylor-Dennehy assumed the captaincy.
The home side played up the hill towards the club house on a bitterly cold day with the swirling wind predominantly in their faces going towards Wells’ defensive left hand corner. Indeed, the wind was to prove troublesome for both teams.
On 5 minutes Wells failed to deal with a box kick which led to to a successfully converted penalty for the visitors in front of the sticks. 0-3. In the early stages Dorking had the territorial advantage and after Wells knocked on during a line out maul in their own 22, they had an attacking scrum which earned a penalty and another scrum was chosen. Robust defence forced a knock on though and Wells were able to exit from the ensuing scrum. Strong defence of this nature was to be a feature of the afternoon for the home team.
Taylor-Dennehy and outside half Frank Reynolds kicked extremely well and intelligently into the wind, outplaying their counterparts. One such kick nearly led to a try as Academy product Toby Talbot charged down a clearing kick and the chasing wing Max Hobbs looked likely to score after good footballing skills only to knock on.
In these initial exchanges Dorking held the upper hand in the scrum with Wells incurring the wrath of the referee. However, the Wells line out was functioning very well with hooker Josh Pankhurst hitting Hathaway and Christian Earle and did so all afternoon.
Wells first got on the scoreboard on 18 minutes. After a series of phases in the middle of the pitch close to the ruck on the Dorking 22 metre line, with Nick Doherty and Burgess to the fore, centre Mike Doherty exploited a mismatch against a visiting prop to cross for an opening try on the left hand side 10 metres in from touch. With a fine Reynolds conversion it was 7-3.
Dorking came back strongly but fierce and intelligent defence from Talbot, Hobbs, Douch and Pankhurst led to a great turnover from prop Ben “Fridge” Williams. Soon after, Wells counter attacked well with Taylor-Dennehy, Hobbs and Osgood in tandem.
A break through the middle from a Dorking winger off the back of a line out led to a penalty. This was kicked to corner to set up a catch and drive on 28 minutes but phenomenal Wells defence again thwarted the visitors. This impressive defence was also leading to Dorking mistakes and with the home scrum now becoming increasingly competitive Wells entered their best phase of the first half.
A Taylor-Dennehy and Osgood counter saw excellent field position and when Dorking were penalised for a tackle offence Reynolds knocked over the penalty from 30 minutes. 10-3. Wells closed out a tough half up the slope after a break deep in his own half by Nick Doherty was taken on by Talbot who surged up field impressively. Wells had assumed control of the half dealing with the worst of the conditions through a superior kicking game and handling, coupled with great defence. Half Time 10-3.
As the second period started Earle broke through the middle and off loaded to Hathaway and a penalty was earned. Unfortunately, this went wide but the home side were not to be denied. Not only did Williams pre-empt a laboured box kick clearance and charge it down but it was the prop himself who hacked through from the 22 metre line and beat the Dorking cover for a very popular touch down on 46 minutes. 15-3.
Dorking are not in 7th by accident though and came back only to be held up by Brendan Crosilla, Earle, Williams and Hathaway but the men in red and white eventually earned a penalty on 50 minutes that they converted from 30 metres. 15-6.
What would have particularly pleased Skills Coach Mike Whatman (now promoted to Director of Rugby) was the fact that Wells were executing their skills much the better of the two teams in the conditions. With the scrum now gradually assuming dominance Reynolds was soon given another penalty opportunity after Williams and Hathaway carried strongly again and he extended the Wells lead on 57 minutes. 18-6. On the hour after another impressive outing an injured Hathaway was replaced by Hawkins.
Despite Wells seemingly being in charge the game was not yet won and the visitors best passage of play saw some big carries up field earning a penalty. Dorking kicked to the Wells 5 metre line and an impressive catch and drive saw them score a try on 63 minutes. 18-11.
Nerves were just starting to jangle for the home support but these were almost settled when Reynolds cleverly chipped and chased but the defending blindside winger covered well to prevent the try. Webster now replaced the injured Mike Doherty and soon after Wells stretched their lead. Douch fed his ball carriers well and Crosilla, Earle and Pankhurst made good yardage before Taylor-Dennehy showing great vision grubbered the ball behind the Dorking defence and in-form winger Matt Spicer was first to the ball for the try. With a cracking Reynolds touchline conversion it was now 25-11 on 74 minutes.
All that was needed now for the perfect afternoon at the office was the fourth bonus point try and on 80 minutes it came. A huge hit by Osgood created turnover ball for Nick Doherty to break through for a final try converted by Reynolds. 32-11.
Overall, this was a thoroughly deserved win. Wells managed the conditions superbly and always seemed in control with resolute defence and great execution in skills and game plan against a very useful team. Man of the match could have genuinely gone to several players but for a huge shift in defence, the scrum and a very well taken try the accolade went to Ben “Fridge” Williams.
Wells moved to within two points of 5th placed Westcliff and will be targetting this spot with this away fixture to be played . Next week they host Kent rivals Sidcup at St Marks with a 3pm kick off. As the visitors are one of four teams battling to avoid the final relegation spot then another fiercely-contested local derby is likely.
Squad: Ben Williams, Josh Pankhurst, Brendan Crosilla, Kyle McGarvie, Andy Burgess, Christian Earle, Toby Talbot, Mike Hathaway, Luke Hawkins, Nick Doherty, Max Douch, Frank Reynolds, Matt Spicer, Mike Doherty, Shadyn Osgood, Max Hobbs, Ryan Taylor- Dennehy (Capt) Richard Webster.