When this season’s London & South East Premier League fixtures were released it is fair to say this was the one most Tunbridge Wells supporters scanned through to find. It was a shade over three years since the “A21 Derby” had taken place at St Marks and both clubs were looking forward to resuming a strong, but very amicable, rivalry as Wells and Oaks have bonds of friendship both on and off the pitch.
Sevenoaks will have been delighted with how they have started their first campaign at National Level Five coming in to this game.Their four wins from eight games was a solid foundation to build upon and they sat comfortably mid-table in 8th on 19 points, whilst Wells were in 5th just four points ahead on 23. .
The last twice the teams met at St Marks were in September 2015 and December 2016, and if history told us anything it would be that this clash will be too close to call. These games saw the match settled by just one score with Wells triumphing 11-6 and 10-3 respectively. Indeed, as a portent of things to come the 2015 match report included the passages: “a real war of attrition played in typically blustery winter conditions at St Marks” and “the final quarter was all Sevenoaks…and with seconds to go they found themselves within touching distance of the line”. And then the report in 2016 made reference to “a proper old-fashioned arm wrestle” and “a superb Reynolds kick” late on. The afternoon was, therefore, to be a case of deja-vu to some extent.
Tunbridge Wells were able to field a relatively settled, if depleted, squad. One change in the backs saw a First XV debut on the wing for Harvey Colangelo, a genuine home-grown talent having played his way through the ranks from the under 6s. The young man was to look very much at home on first appearance at this level – surely just the first of many to come. In the forwards the only change was the return of Charley Smith as a substitute.
Sadly for the players (and the crowd of c300) the weathermen (weather people?) got their forecast spot on as the crisp, blue skied morning, gave way to a damp (and eventually very dark) afternoon as the rain started minutes before kick-off and then persisted throughout. This was always likely to be a physical encounter, especially given the underfoot conditions, and both teams were pleased to have referee Steven Randall in the middle – he is widely recognised as the leading Kent Society referee at this level and his understanding of the local rivalry gave him a valuable additional insight into the game that was to unfold.
Wells kicked off playing down the St Marks slope in the first half. Despite the very testing conditions the game started at a frenetic pace, and to be fair to the players the speed hardly relented throughout. Both teams looked to use a combination of a kicking game for territory, mixed with an ambition to try and move the ball wide when they had it. However, this was to be a game where defences were dominant and the most significant contributions were to come from the respective forward packs. The larger Oaks pack would have hoped for set-piece dominance but, at least initially, the set-scrum saw parity. Whilst the scrum superiority was to ebb and flow to a certain extent, the visitor’s line-out had a clear advantage and this fed into a dominant rolling-maul. A rugby scholar (well me actually!) once said that “a rolling maul, done well, is a thing of beauty” and for the aesthete old-school forwards in attendance Oaks were to provide something of a master-class in this department.
A good George Montgomery kick gave Wells some early territory after some fine defensive work by Colangelo. Soon after, Sevenoaks outside half Tom Simmonds looked to have created space for his side to attack on 10 minutes but Wells were relieved to receive a penalty for obstruction. Shortly afterwards the home team lost newly capped Polish international prop Kamil Wiecaszek to what looked a serious knee injury, with player-coach Aston Croall replacing him. This was terribly unfortunate for the popular player, especially given the high of last week’s national debut.
For Wells the second rows Agy Eukaliti and Ben Whale were already getting through a lot of work but when the home team seemed to be building some pressure Oaks flanker Matt McRae managed to steal the ball. Wells were marginally the better team in the first half but were finding it difficult to get though the Oaks defensive line. In-form winger Max Hobbs and skipper Ryan Taylor-Dennehy were both looking to create space and Wells finally had an attacking foothold with a line-out 20 metres out after Oaks were caught offside. Although this was disrupted, home flanker James Pancaldi did fine work to secure the ball and Reynolds was able to release his dangerous back-line. After a series of drives it looked inevitable that Taylor-Dennehy would score as he took an outside arc against one of the visitor’s forwards. That this was former Wells hooker Scott Sedgwick removed this inevitability though and he produced an outstanding tackle to haul the full back down.
Determined defence held Wells at bay but only at the expense of a penalty. Having shown strength in the last scrums Wells opted for another now and a huge drive saw Oaks shunted backwards at a rate of knots. As Nick Doherty went to collect the ball the scrum popped up and was wheeled illegally giving referee Randall little option but to award a penalty try. Sedgwick then received his (sadly) habitual yellow card in these games as Wells took the lead on 26 minutes. 7-0.
Montgomery and Taylor-Dennehy kicks again provided good field position for the town’s team as they sought to gain a fuller advantage from playing down the hill. However, the ball was lost from a line-out and driven up-field by Oaks’ robust number eight Fred Richardson and McCrae. This led to a penalty 10 metres into the home team’s half. A kick to touch followed and the ensuing maul seemed to be moving inexorably towards Wells line before it was held up and turned over. However, the respite was temporary as Oaks then pushed Wells off their own scrum earning a penalty, to the vocal delight of the significant travelling support. Full back Tom Gray comfortably slotted the shot at goal from 20 metres to make it 7-3 on 35 minutes.
Wells again switched the re-start and defensive indecision saw a knock-on and an attacking scrum. Wells had the bit firmly between their teeth now and Tui Tauaika, Mike Doherty and Whale drove at the heart of the Oaks defence. Eddie Croft then moved the ball to the right and Montgomery fed the predatory Hobbs who had come off his left wing to score the try. Reynolds did not get hold of the conversion but it was now 12-3 on 38 minutes.
However, there was still to be a lot of rugby to play in the half. Sevenoaks were awarded a penalty at the re-start and with their impeccable line-out sensed another rolling-maul opportunity. The ball was secured and moved forward but Wells dug in and in holding the ball up they were awarded a scrum just 10 metres from their line. Under pressure at the base, Nick Doherty worked hard to clean up and secure ball for Reynolds’ exiting kick. Time was nearly up at the interval when Reynolds sent a booming 40 metre kick into Oaks territory. However, from the line-out Oaks produced a fine attack which saw Richardson rampaging up the left wing to half-way. His ambitious kick ahead was blocked by Colangelo and and turned over. However, when Taylor-Dennehy was penalised for holding on at his own 10 metre line Oaks sensed one last opportunity to narrow the lead.
Once again the weapon of choice was the maul and it took illegal means to halt it just 8 metres short. Unsurprisingly, the option of another line-out and maul was the decision as Wells were now having great difficulty in dealing with it. This time it could not be stopped and it was flanker Josh Baldock who came up with the ball after 10 (correctly) added minutes. The tough conversion was missed but it was all to play for now at half time. 12-8.
If Wells were the better team in the first half, then the second period definitely belonged to the men from Knole Paddock. Their industrious back-row of McRae, Baldock and Richardson got the better of the breakdown and Sevenoaks would have taken the journey home up the A21 ruing their luck in not having bagged the win.
Time and again Oaks looked to use their highly effective rolling maul to attack and it took tenacious defence coupled with, perhaps, a lack of Oaks precision when most needed to keep Wells in the game. As well as the line-out supremacy Oaks were now getting the edge in the scrums too so it is to the credit of the boys from St Marks that they hung in without really threatening the Oaks try-line for any sustained periods.
On 47 minutes a crucial Whale intervention turned over the ball when Oaks were gaining momentum and he carried it forward earning a penalty. A quick tap and run by Wells failed to relieve the pressure and when Montgomery was penalised for playing the Oaks scrum half rather than the ball another Oaks attacking maul looked likely. However, thankfully for Wells indiscipline from Oaks prop Dan Power saw him sent to the sin bin, and the penalty reversed, for barging Montgomery after the referee’s whistle had been blown, he having taken umbrage at the Wells’ centre’s actions. Smith now replaced Chris Brown for Wells.
Sevenoaks were using a sensible and pragmatic kicking game pinning Wells back and it took good tackles from the likes of Stuart Nicholls, Colangelo, and the outstanding Whale to keep them at bay. However, it felt inevitable that Sevenoaks would score next and this they did after an hour. Mike Doherty was penalised for a careless high tackle on halfway and this provided another opportunity for a kick to touch and attacking line-out on the right wing. Josh Pettet rose high again to secure Sedgwick’s throw 25 metres out and immediately the maul moved forward. Wells were warned but they came in offside and collapsed it. Another penalty was awarded and this time it was Wells who were down to 14 men as Whale received a yellow card.
Why fix what isn’t broken? Oaks opted for another line-out and again the maul was set. 3 metres out it went to ground and Randall signalled a penalty advantage. Perhaps Wells relaxed a shade pending the next line-out assault but instead of settling for this the visitors moved the ball to Simmonds and the outside half cleverly spotted space in behind the Wells back-line. He chipped through into the home dead ball area and Oaks centre Leighton Ralph was first to the ball to dot down under the posts. Gray popped the conversion over and it was now deservedly 12-15 to Sevenoaks after 63 minutes.
Wells have had to show great determination and a positive attitude already this season and it was again the case that they needed to draw upon this resolve now. Tauauike, Eukaliti and the younger Doherty brother kept driving forward but Oaks still seemed to have the upper hand. Once more they had field position for an attacking maul but this time the ball was lost forward and a fine Taylor-Dennehy clearance kick relieved the pressure. Whale returned from the sin bin and the experienced Ollie Allman also came on for Colangelo, who should be highly satisfied with his debut.
On 73 minutes it was a fine kick and chase from Allman which saw Wells back in Oaks territory from which they earned a penalty. Being just out of his points kicking range Reynolds sent the ball to the 22 metre line for an attacking Wells line-out. The ball was untidy but Montgomery and Taylor-Dennehy rescued it and despite strong defence the home team secured a scrum 35 metres out. Oaks had taken off powerful prop Charlie Naismith and sensing an opportunity to attack the set-piece messrs Tauaika, Nicholls and Croall shoved the opposition backwards and earned a penalty. Instead of the tough shot at goal into the breeze Wells opted for a kick to touch and a line-out. This time the ball was gathered safely and when the visitors were penalised for not releasing at the ruck 20 metres out Reynolds took the opportunity to level the scores striking the ball clean and true. 77 minutes played and it was 15-15.
The last 12 minutes (there was another 9 added minutes this half with 5 of them under penalty advantage) was played in the darkest playing conditions many can remember at St Marks. It really was gloomy, and with Wells spending most of it in their own half fending off waves of Oaks possession, there was an ominous sense of “doom” to go with the gloom. Team spirit , though, is something this team has in spades and they had to show this now to stand steadfast. Oaks re-found their scrum edge to earn a penalty but with the difficult kicking conditions making it too tough for Gray, they put their confidence in the maul ‘machine’ one last time. Two further penalties were awarded and now a line-out was set just 7 metres out. The maul inched forward this time as the St Marks’ forwards gave their all to hold it back and when it went to ground it was the attacking team who were penalised for not releasing at the ruck that followed. Echoes of 2015 and time was up.
Honours were even on the scoreboard but there is no doubt that it is Tunbridge Wells who will have been the happier with the shared spoils. A fierce game, full of commitment and desire, which was discussed long into the evening by friends and ‘foe’ alike. Thoughts also turned to the re-match at Knole Paddock on 22nd February.
Next week Wells (5th) travel to Hertfordshire to take on 11th placed Tring for a 2.30pm kick off and there will be a coach going from the club for supporters who want to travel.
Squad: Ryan Taylor-Dennehy (Capt); Harvey Colangelo (Ollie Allman),Mike Doherty, George Montgomery, Max Hobbs; Frank Reynolds, Eddie Croft; Tui Tauaika, Stuart Nicholls, Kamil Wiecaszek (Aston Croall), Agy Eukaliti, Ben Whale, Chris Brown (Charley Smith), James Pancaldi, Nick Doherty.
Wells and Oaks Second XVs also faced off at St Marks in the Invicta League and it was the more experienced visitors who took the win 0-24. However, to complete the symmetry on scores Wells “Social” (3rd) XV had an impressive 24-0 win at Old Gravesendians II. Club stalwart Simon Waymont scored two tries, whilst Tom Theobald and Jack Beaman also crossed the line. “Veteran” Nick Baldock slotted two conversions.
Elsewhere in the League
Wimbledon stretched their lead to three points winning 16-27 at Dorking. They sit on 44 ahead of Rochford Hundred on 41 who had their own ‘arm wrestle’ at lowly Guildford before a 0-12 win. Guernsey’s 33-7 bonus-point home victory over Tring (our opponents next week) keeps them hot on their tail with 38 points. As predicted here a few weeks ago, these three are now well clear of Hertford who jump from 7th to 4th on 26 points having defeated Bedford Athletic 29-7. We remain in 5th one point back and ahead of Sidcup on points difference after they had a “terrible day at the office” in losing 41-3 at bottom side Brighton. It just goes to illustrate the standard in this league and emphasise the fact that there are no easy games if your level of performance dips. Dorking drop to 7th and Sevenoaks remain 8th, both on 21 points. In the remaining game London Irish Wild Geese beat CS Stags 17-6 to move 9th on 14 points, alongside Bedford Athletic and Tring in 10th and 11th. Stags occupy the first relegation spot (yes, I think it is time to start thinking about these things…) on 11 points with Brighton’s stunning win moving them to 9 points and two above Guildford who now drop to the foot of the ladder.