Honours even (again!) in second A21 Derby – Sevenoaks 18 Tunbridge Wells 18.

With both clubs comfortably in the London South East Premier League mid-table and split by just two places and points, this was a game that would likely see the winners well-positioned for a late season push towards the top four. After a tight 15-15 draw at St Marks in November the scene was set for another close game between the ‘friendliest’ of local rivals.

On an understandably heavy pitch it was Tunbridge Wells who kicked off, with a strong cross-field wind behind. The gusty conditions were to make to make it difficult for both teams with line-out throwing and box kicking particularly susceptible to the elements.
The opening phases of the game were to set the scene for what was to follow with Wells very much looking to play with the ball in hand and exploit any opportunities they had to run at the Sevenoaks defence. After some initial thrusts a first scrum was set on halfway. The visitors were very mindful of Sevenoaks’ set piece excellence with both the scrum and line-out being strong attacking weapons. However, the first scrum gave some cause for optimism as it held firm. However, the hosts were soon to get a second chance as the long clearing kick from Oaks scrum-half Matt Holmes was fumbled close to the Wells line and a very promising attacking position was provided to the hosts. Sevenoaks span the ball wide to the left wing but excellent cover defence by Rich Murray and Richard Webster forced them into touch.

The next five minutes or so so witnessed the game being played very much between the halfway line and Sevenoaks 22 but strong defence was a characteristic of the game throughout and errors were forced meaning that little momentum could be gained by either side. On nine minutes, Wells were forced into a temporary re-jigging of the back line when outside half Frank Reynolds received a nasty cut to the head when making a tackle. This saw the welcome return after injury of Charlie Rigby who took up scrum-half duties, with Eddie Croft moving from 9 to the wing, and Max Hobbs to full back to cover whilst his skipper Ryan Taylor Dennehy slotted in at outside half.

This was very evidently a ‘derby’ in style as a frenetic pace was maintained throughout with physical confrontations occurring across Knole Paddock. And this physicality was never more evident than on 13 minutes when Sevenoaks took the lead. Having earned a scrum penalty they kicked deep into Wells territory to set an attacking line-out. The Oaks rolling maul had been a very effective tool in the first meeting of the teams at St Marks and when home hooker Scott Sedgwick combined with Kenny Lee they looked to drive the ball over. Wells did well to resist this effort but it was only to be a temporary respite. Sevenoaks took advantage of this momentum to spin the ball through the hands and impressive centre Leighton Ralph found a way through the defensive line. Despite stumbling just short, he was able to dot down for the opening try of the match. Wing Ben Adams slotted the extra two. 7–0.

When the wind carried the re-start dead Sevenoaks were able to take a scrums on halfway but the visitors were able to usher the ensuing attack into touch. This was the catalyst for the best Wells attack of the first half. Webster made a powerful initial surge before Nick Doherty, Ben Whale and Mike Hathaway combined to make further in roads. A heavily bandaged Reynolds had now returned and he made a scintillating break through the Sevenoaks back line before linking with the ever willing Mike Doherty. The centre sidestepped past the last defender before diving over the line close to the posts. This made the conversion something of a formality for Reynolds and it was now 7–7 on 17 minutes.

Oaks did well to wrap up the catcher at the restart and earn an attacking scrum but when Mike Doherty made a forceful tackle he earned a penalty for his team and after a second breakdown infringement in as many minutes the visitors were awarded a penalty 40 metres out in front of the posts. With the wind at his back Reynolds opted for a kick at goal even though it was probably at the edge of his range. However, he was as relieved as the large travelling support when it struck the crossbar but bounced forward and over. 7–10 after 23 minutes.

Any inquest that the Sevenoaks coaching staff will hold post the match will likely focus on ill-discipline as the home team were certainly penalised more often by referee Katherine Ritchie, This was illustrated by a careless obstruction penalty at the re-start. The wind was playing merry hell with the visitors line-out at this stage and Sevenoaks were able to kick clear from what had been a promising Wells attacking position. However, Nick Doherty and lock Duncan Hales combined well to return the ball into Oaks territory.

Harrying defence from Wells caused Oaks to spill a ball soon after and it was Webster who was first to react and kick the ball ahead. Indeed, he looked odds-on favourite to gather the ball and score a try as his closest pursuer was teammate Murray. The covering defence flew across the field and as Webster looked to gather and fall over the line he appeared to be tackled without the ball. Referee Ritchie was perfectly placed to adjudge the situation, though, and whilst a penalty try looked like most likely option, she instead awarded a ‘normal’ try having decided Webster had got the ball to ground. The wide conversion was missed but it was now 7–15 after 27 minutes of play.

A series of penalties conceded by Wells was to give Sevenoaks a better platform and they were to take advantage of this. A quick tapped penalty made further ground leading to an attacking line-out 15 metres out on the left. Just as they has done earlier in the game, a maul was set and started to make ground before firm resistance seemed to have averted the worst of the crisis. Oaks we are not to be denied on this occasion, though, as they re-formed a second maul and powerful number eight Fred Richardson was able to drive over for the try. Given the windy conditions Adams’ low conversion attempt was a fine one but it still fell short. 12-15 on 34 minutes.

With the wind seemingly picking up even more, Wells would have been mindful that a three point gap at the interval would likely prove to be insufficient. They redoubled their efforts and spent most of the remaining period camped in the Sevenoaks half. Frustratingly, three successive line-outs were either lost or stolen enabling Sevenoaks to clear their lines. However, Taylor-Dennehy returned the ball with interest to drive the home team back to their own 22 metre line. On this occasion, it was Wells who were able to disrupt the line-out and hooker Stuart Nicholls was able to gather the loose ball. Hathaway drove on into midfield and when Sevenoaks were penalised for offside, Reynolds stepped forward from 18 metres to take the three points. The younger Doherty, Agy Eukaliti and Taylor-Dennehy combined once more before the interval but when the ball was lost forward the half-time whistle was blown.

The large crowd would no doubt have anticipated the physical encounter they were witnessing and whilst Wells fully deserved their lead at the interval they will have been concerned that the strength of the wind could play into the Sevenoaks hands in the second half. What they would have been encouraged by, though, was that their backs were making incisive runs with ball in hand and Webster, in particular, was looking very dangerous.

Nicholls has been “in the wars” in recent weeks and he was replaced at half-time by Charley Smith with Tui Tauaika taking over throwing duties. The prop was to be one of the most prominent characters in the second-half seemingly covering most blades of grass and mud patches at Knole Paddock.

The Oaks kickoff was sent long but a powerful Webster carry made initial yardage, followed by an excellent drilled clearance kick from Taylor-Dennehy. However, it wasn’t long before Ralph put in a fine kick of his own forcing Wells back and although Tauaika and Hales combined to secure  line-out ball the clearance kick only led to a mid-field scrum 35 metres out to the home side. In general, the Wells scrummage performed robustly throughout, particularly in the second half, but it was penalised on this occasion and Adams slotted the penalty kick after 45 minutes. 15–18.

With the Oaks faithful now becoming more vociferous, the boys from St Marks should be proud of how they responded. Indeed, the fact that they will no doubt be frustrated that they would leave at least two clear try scoring opportunities on the park is indicative of how this could be seen, perhaps, as a win that got away rather than the hard-fought draw that it became. Having said that, the home team, no doubt, will also be frustrated at the amount of a good quality ball they kicked away in the second period and the lack of precision that overall meant that the sharing of the spoils was far from an unfair final scoreline.

Taking a leaf out of the Sevenoaks playbook, a powerful line out maul made 15 metres for Tunbridge Wells taking them into Sevenoaks territory prior to it being halted illegally. Another maul was set and with several backs joining in to add additional momentum the visiting supporters were starting to cheer. However, to their frustration, players were adjudged to have joined the maul in front of the ball and a penalty was awarded to the home team.

This Wells team is never happier than when keeping ball in hand and they attempted to deal with the strong headwind by playing patient, phase orientated, rugby. However, a knock-on was to spoil their efforts and before long Sevenoaks were back in their half with an attacking line-out some 35 metres from the Wells try line.

Strong defence was able to resist the initial Sevenoaks efforts with Carl Straeche and Smith to the fore (the latter making the first of several muscular tackles). Having forced their opponents to kick, Taylor-Dennehy and Hathaway then combined to make initial yardage prior to Whale and Tauaika making even further ground. These two forwards were particularly prominent during the second 40 minutes.

On 52 minutes the home team had an attacking line out which saw them make in-roads into Wells territory as replacement prop Dan Power surged deep into the visitors 22. Again, Smith made a hefty hit out wide which enabled Webster to bring the ball clear. Just as it looked like a promising counter-attack might be on, former Tunbridge Wells product Sedgwick showed once again that he is something of a master of the dark arts, to snaffle a steal at the ruck and put Sevenoaks back in good field position.

From a scrum attack Webster was able to dislodge the ball in a tackle and Whale surged into the Sevenoaks half before linking with the athletic Hales. He took the ball on further, supported by Tauaika and the visitors were now very much on the front foot deep in Sevenoaks territory. Taylor-Dennehy took the ball up before feeding out to what was now a three against one overlap but to the frustration of the Wells players and fans, the ball was lost forward and a clear opportunity had gone begging.

James Pancaldi now replaced Eukaliti for the final quarter. Utilising the wind Sevenoaks pinned Wells back but a powerful Tauaika run saw him break three tackles before being hauled down and earning a penalty that enabled Reynolds to push the ball back into Sevenoaks territory.

The respite was only temporary and when Wells were penalised for being offside 45 metres out it was no great surprise to see Ben Adams stride forward to take a shot at goal given he had been striking the ball so well throughout. He did so again and the ball soared between the posts to draw the scores level at 18–18 after 67 minutes.

Two further strong Whale carries put Wells on the attack and when Oaks were penalised at a ruck 25 metres out Reynolds had the opportunity to put his team back in front. However, into the wind he needed to strike the ball firm and low and unfortunately, from his point of view, this saw him drag the ball just wide of the left upright.

Eukaliti returned for Hales and Wells’ attacking ambitions remained intact . Number Eight Doherty and Hathaway combined again to make good ground . To be fair, though, they were assisted in this by some wayward Sevenoaks kicking and it wasn’t long before this momentum saw two successive ruck penalties and a further opportunity for Reynolds with 5 minutes of normal time to play. He will likely be a little more disappointed at this effort which was closer in but again went astray. It is hard not to underestimate the difficult nature of the gusting wind too though.

The visitors definitely looked the more likely team to score at this stage and when Taylor-Dennehy and Whale combined in midfield to release Croft, the former winger showed some of his pace to make 40 metres into the home 22. Despite frantic defence it still looked likely to create a try-scoring opportunity as the ball was moved to the right wing. However, audible groans from the travelling support were heard when a pass was forward and a scrum awarded to Sevenoaks. As the clock ticked into injury time the question now was whether or not a further scoring opportunity could be created by either team and, in fact, it was Sevenoaks who would have the last significant chance.

A deep clearance was fielded by Taylor-Dennehy 30 metres from his own line but when his kick was charged down it was Oaks winger Adams who was first to react to react and gather the ball. He was (thankfully from Wells perspective) flirting with the touchline though and with the referee perfectly placed she saw his right foot touch the white-wash as fed the ball inside to supporting players and a line-out was awarded. With Sevenoaks now sensing a final opportunity 15 metres out, it took a clever three-man line-out option and short throw to acting half-back Hathaway from Tauaika to alleviate the initial threat, and a fine Mike Doherty clearance kick sent Oaks back. They then returned the kick and with Eukaliti And Whale trucking the ball back up to halfway a penalty was earned. Reynolds found touch and with an attacking line-out 35 metres out could this be the opportunity Wells were seeking to seal the win? The simple answer was no as Sevenoaks stole the line-out and walloped the ball deep down the field in to Wells territory. With little to gain from taking any risks, Taykor-Dennehy simply kicked the ball dead and an 18–18 draw was confirmed.

So the 2019/20 season has resulted in two drawn A21 Derbies. In all fairness, this is a pretty accurate reflection of where the teams stand. They are separated by just two points and (now) one league position. If Sevenoaks were probably a shade unfortunate to not win at Tunbridge Wells then it is quite possible to make the counter argument with respect to this game. Honours even.

Squad: Ryan Taylor-Dennehy (Capt); Richard Webster, Rich Murray, Mike Doherty, Max Hobbs; Frank Reynolds, Eddie Croft; Tui Tauaika, Stuart Nicholls, Carl Straeche, Ben Whale, Duncan Hales, Agy Eukaliti, Mike Hathaway, Nick Doherty. Subs: Charlie Rigby, Charley Smith, James Pancaldi.

Elsewhere in the League

Guernsey sit atop the league but only on points difference from Rochford Hundred. Both teams have 93 points after 7-31 and 31-12 wins at Tring and home to Guildford respectively. They have five games each left which is one less than Wimbledon who are 8 points back (their game in hand being at St Marks on 14th March).  They were pushed hard in a 26-19 win over 4th placed Dorking and can still have a significant part to play in the title and promotion race as they travel to the Channel Islanders on 28th March. Dorking are joined on 59 points by Hertford who were involved in a thrilling game at Bedford Athletic where the home team illustrated that they are still battling hard against relegation before falling to a 34-36 defeat. Sevenoaks are 6th on 51 whilst yesterday’s draw saw us move up to 7th on 49, one point ahead of Sidcup who succumbed 17-31 in South London to Brighton. The Seasiders remain in a rich vein of form and are in 9th on 44 points following an impressive six successive wins since losing to us. 

If Brighton can, perhaps, start to breathe more easily in the relegation battle, the same cannot be said of 10th placed Tring who have 36 points. They are one ahead of CS Stags who will be relieved to have won their massive home game against 12th placed London Irish Wild Geese, with the visitors picking up just a losing bonus point with the game ending 22-15. This means they are now 7 points away from safety on 28, one ahead of Bedford Athletic after their two hard-earned bonus points yesterday. Guildford remain at the bottom on 20 points and with 4 of their last 5 games against top half teams (and the other versus ‘in-form’ Brighton) their fate looks pretty much sealed. 

One more bonus-point win will see us mathematically “safe” (and we host 10th placed Tring next week), as would a failure by either London Irish or Bedford to win on Saturday….and as they play Sevenoaks and Guernsey respectively there must be a chance that this will prove beyond them both. 

Graham Withers

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