“Friday Night Lights” sees Wells win well…..

TUNBRIDGE WELLS 36 CS STAGS 1863 0

With the wettest winter on record meaning that St Marks is better suited to water polo than rugby at present, Tunbridge Wells were relieved to be able to use the all-weather pitch at Tunbridge Wells Grammar School for Boys for their re-arranged league match against CS Stags 1863. Wells knew that one more win would see them mathematically safe in the London & South East Premier League, whilst their Chiswick-based opponents are very much in the mire at the bottom.

A very healthy crowd took advantage of Wells’ first game under the eponymous “Friday Night Lights”. Wells made four player changes to the squad that drew with Sevenoaks, together with several positional changes. The most significant one saw skipper Ryan Taylor-Dennehy move from full back to outside half, where he was to have a mightily impressive game. This also saw the return of the ever-popular Ollie Allman at 15, whilst Matt Spicer came in on the left wing enabling Richard Webster to move to outside centre. In the forwards, Aston Croall came back in to shore up the scrum at prop with Tui Tauaika moving to hooker. On the bench Josh Hawkins replaced Charley Smith.

Wells kicked off and and although they conceded an early penalty, when a powerful counter-maul turned the ball over following a line-out it put them on the attack. Strong scrummaging from Croall, Tauaika and Cral Straeche gave Wells a solid platform throughout and scrum half Eddie Croft and Taylor-Dennehy were able to being Max Hobbs in off his right wing for an initial incursion into Stags territory. The outside-half then made a further 30 metre break before being hauled down just 5 metres short. Another good scrum saw led to an offside penalty and with their confidence up the pack were asked to set another scrum. A big surge followed and the referee has no option but to award the Penalty Try as Stags wheeled the set-piece. 7-0 after 5 minutes.

The visitors now had what was to prove to be one of their best phases of play, such was Wells’ ascendancy throughout, but tine and again a hugely competitive and coherent defensive effort thwarted Stags. Webster and fellow centre Mike Doherty made big hits and closed space with impressive line-speed characterising a fine team performance in defence. Eventually Stags were forced to try a speculative kick which was superbly gathered by Taylor-Dennehy. He was clearly taken in the air but the un-sighted referee missed this, much to the derision of club stalwart Fran Colangelo….(I am not happy with that” said the irate Anglo-Italian) awarding just a scrum. A fine Allman clearance kick relived the pressure though.

If the centres were spearheading the back-line’s defence it was the flankers Mike Hathaway and Agy Eukaliti who were leading a powerful forward display. The latter, in particular, has been exceptional since the return of Ben Whale (more of him to come) has enabled him to move into the back row. Wells will be disappointed that their apparent edge at the breakdown often found dis-favour with the match official and it was after two successive penalties that Stags finally managed to engineer a clear break, only for an excellent last-ditch Allman tackle to avert the trouble.

On 18 minutes Wells extend their lead. It came from a Stags scrum just inside their half but when the home pack pushed them back, the pressure created untidy ball and as it was shipped wide Webster saw his opportunity to intercept the ball and gallop clear from 40 metres. Croft’s conversion slipped wide but it was now 12-0.

One facet of their game that Wells won’t have been pleased with was their work at re-starts as Stags managed to secure their own kick on more than one occasion. This was the case now but a superb Whale tackle and turnover saw the hosts awarded a penalty. Tauaika found lock Duncan Hales (a seriously good mid-season signing) but the ball was lost and hacked through. The nature of the 3g pitch is that balls do at least bounce consistently and Hobbs did very well to get back and gather the ball. Croft’s excellent 35 metre kick then took play back into the visitor’s half. Soon after, Mike Doherty charged down a clearance kick but the ball was knocked on as a try looked possible.

Stags finally secured a sustained foothold in the Wells’ half after 25 minutes. For five minutes they controlled ball and territory despite robust defence and after two more breakdown penalties had an attacking line-out 15 metres away out. However, the ball in was not straight and although Allman’s clearance kick from the ensuing scrum was charged down, this led to a line-out that saw Whale taken in the air and a relieving penalty awarded.

Wells were, as ever, trying to play ambitious “ball in hand” rugby, and this did lead to some handling errors. However, the players should be well aware that they have the support of the Wells’ faithful in this exciting style. The artificial service certainly helps with this approach as it leads to a quicker pace of game. It also makes it more physical and with the boys from St Marks winning most of the major collisions this also suited their style of play.

Excellent attacking play and continuity following a fine 20 metre break by Tauaika took Wells deep into Stags territory. With the effervescent Whale, Nick Doherty and Taylor-Dennehy prominent the visitors did well to halt this at the expense of an attacking scrum. Indeed, they did well again when they were able to bundle the boys in blue into touch from this, despite the deftest of Croft passes to Webster.

The home side were to spend most of the last 10 minutes inside their opponents half. They could easily have got frustrated as firstly a 12-man driving maul went to ground as a try beckoned (resulting in a turnover) and then a strong Spicer carry created another opportunity only for the ball to be spilt. Their persistence and patience was to be rewarded though as the clock ticked into injury time. Another powerful Tauaika drive put them on the front foot. The forwards secured quick ball and the most exquisite of delayed passes by Taylor-Dennehy served to put Webster clear again from 20 metres to bag his brace of tries. A superb score from start to finish, and although it was to go unconverted, a half-time score line of 17-0 was a more accurate reflection of the opening 40 minutes.

As the second-half got underway the contented “buzz” of conversation amongst supporters agreed that what Wells did not want to do was give their opponents any encouragement regarding a come-back and to this end it was imperative that they did not concede first. It was, therefore, very heartening when Wells avoided just that scenario despite the opening 5 minutes of play taking place deep in home territory. A line-out penalty saw Stags attempt to cross the line, firstly via a rolling maul and then by more forward drives.Another penalty saw a 5m line-out to the visitors but a superb counter-drive forced then out of play. With the throw-in adjudged not straight Stags were still on the front foot with a scrum but despite a good carry in the centres the ball was lost forward and Wells were finally able to clear their lines.

On 53 minutes the visitors were awarded a scrum penalty which produced an attacking line-out 35 metres form the try line. With their attempts to dominate Wells up-front in the tight phase proving fruitless, Stags now opted to spin the ball though the backs. However, when a wide pass was lost forward it was gathered by Taylor-Dennehy who made 40 metres as the cover started to close. He might well have made the line himself but when you have the electric pace of Hobbs next to you he took the pragmatic and sensible option of feeding him the ball to cover the final 30 metres. With Croft being replaced at scrum half by Charlie Rigby it was Allman who assumed kicking duties. His kick also slipped wide but with the bonus point secured it was now 22-0.

Wells continued to smother all that Stags could throw at them and then on 55 minutes a fifth try surely secured the win. And what a superb individual effort it was. From a scrum 30 metres from our own line, Taylor-Dennehy found Mike Doherty who had taken a sumptuous running line easing him into clear space with just the full back ahead of him. Anyone that has been following the club over the past 10 years knows that there is very rarely more than one outcome when this situation occurs and it was just the same now. A step in, a step out and the full back left floundering as Doherty strode majestically away for the try under the posts. This made Allman’s conversion a formality. 29-0.

On the hour Wells lost Spicer to the sin-bin when an attempted interception (with 70 metres of clear “astro-turf” ahead of him) was adjudged to be a deliberate knock-on (…… in reality it was just Matt’s handsEmoji). However, Stags now looked a beaten team with the unrelenting home defence proving too much. James Pancaldi repleced Eukailiti after another terrific stint, and with his arrival the defensive mastery was only lilkely to increase!

Despite being a man down it was Wells who were to score next. It should, perhaps, have come as a result of a superb individual Hathaway break when the athletic flanker carried for 40 metres. Surely, all he had to do was to pop the ball to the supporting Hobbs on his right shoulder? Instead the ball went inside and the chance was lost…..However, I shall fully accept that this is a much easier game from the touchline, pen and reporting pad in hand!

Stags’ reprieve was to be a fleeting one though. Josh Hawkins replaced Nick Doherty at the Wells attacking scrum, with Whale moving to number eight. And from that scrum Rigby found Mike Doherty standing in the outside-half channel and the prolific try “predator” stepped through the defence again for his second score of the game. Allman added the conversion to make it 36-0 after 68 minutes.

It looked like Wells had scored an even more spectacular try than the excellent efforts already witnessed when from the kick-off (my) man of the match Taylor-Dennehy broke free again before linking with Hobbs who put Allman away for a 20 metre run in. Sadly, the final pass was forward.

The final ten minutes got a little fractured and scrappy as frustrations started to seep to the surface (and I am sure that it was simply a coincidence that this was after Messrs Rigby and Hawkins arrived on the pitch…..lol?). Ben Whale typified his efforts all evening with another steal and run but the game was now over and the Wells’ players, management and supporters could look forward to the rest of their weekend with 5 league points safely deposited and a sense of satisfaction in a job well done. They could also reflect on the club’s first clean sheet since an 85-0 victory over Dover in April 2017 prior to the play-off win that secured the position in this league. Quite apt, as this victory confirms Level Five league rugby again for 2020/21.

Squad: Ollie Allman; Max Hobbs, Richard Webster, Mike Doherty, Matt Spicer; Ryan Taylor-Dennehy (Capt), Eddie Croft (Charlie Rigby); Aston Croall, Tui Tauaika, Carl Straeche, Duncan Hales, Ben Whale, Agy Eukaliti (James Pancaldi), Mike Hathaway, Nick Doherty (Josh Hawkins).

Elsewhere in the League
Just two other re-arranged games played this weekend.

Sevenoaks managed to jump back above us into sixth with a 24-22 win over Dorking. They have 55 points to our 54 but 5th placed Dorking are only 6 points ahead on 60 (having lost at home to bottom-placed Guildford last week) and 4th placed Hertford on 63 must also be within our possible reach given we have two games in hand on both sides?

One of these games, though, is against third-placed Wimbledon next Saturday and they maintained the pressure on the top two with a 22-25 win at Brighton. They are on 91 points which means they are 7 points behind Guernsey and Rochford Hundred who both have 98. It is getting very tight at the bottom though as whilst Brighton’s form since Christmas should see them safe it still remains any three form five for the clubs placed 10th-14th. I intend to do a more in-depth study of this next weekend.

Graham Withers

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