Tunbridge Wells were on their travels to face a Hertford team who, by their own account, had produced their best performance of the campaign the week before in a narrow 14-8 defeat at table-topping Guernsey. They sat in 4th but just two points ahead of Wells in 7th and although the Hertfordshire side comfortably defeated a depleted Wells team 15-34 at St Marks in September, the pre-match chat was much more about a final kick 33-32 win to them in this fixture at the end of last season. As it was, this game was to be almost as close.
The visitors were able to take the field with just two changes to the side that had got 2020 off to such a good start with a dominant performance against Brighton. Harvey Colangelo stepped up to start on the wing in place of Max Hobbs and this enabled talented Academy product Lucas Scully to return to First XV action from the bench. In the pack it was heartening to see the same starting 8 plus popular prop Carl Straeche amongst the replacements, with Ben Isbell having returned to University.
The gravel-bed nature of the land at the club meant a soft but excellent playing surface on a wide-pitch. There was a very strong wind blowing down the pitch and it was Wells who kicked off playing into this. It was evident from the early exchanges that Hertford are a team who like to play running rugby ball-in-hand and they were to stay loyal to this pattern of play, even with the breeze at their backs.
Wells looked to have made a perfect start when the Hertford clearing kick was charged down but the ball fell kindly for the home side and they were able to clear downfield. Strong carries from the industrious Nick Doherty and ever-willing Josh Hawkins took the visitors back into Hertford territory only for the men from St Marks to be penalised for not releasing in the tackle.
This gave Hertford a fine attacking platform with a line out 35 metres from the try line. Although the intended maul was well sacked, Hertford showed great patience as the ensuing phases moved into double-figures. Outside half Liam Batty made use of a penalty advantage to make a lovely grubber kick that wing Charlie Parkhouse gathered. A quickly recycled ball then saw powerful centre Kyle Lemon crash over for the first of a brace of tries. With a good wide conversion from Batty it was 7-0 after 5 minutes.
The Wells scrum had been much improved last week by the availability of player-coach Aston Croall and it was the same again in Hertfordshire. The first set piece provided good ball off which Mike Doherty (twice) and flanker James Pancaldi made surging drives. When a penalty was awarded outside half Frank Reynolds found a good touch to set up an attacking line out, and when hooker Stuart Nicholls connected with Josh Hawkins a maul was set. Backs poured in to try and help the ball over the line but it splintered and the ball was knocked on. Poor discipline then conceded a penalty and Hertford could clear their lines.
It was the home team’s turn to use a powerful maul now but despite making 25 metres they could not secure the ball and the referee awarded the turnover to the men in white (we were in our away kit!). However, it was Croall who was penalised at the next scrum and Hertford were inside the Wells half again. Good defence kept them at bay though and soon after strong Mike Hathaway, Agy Eukaliti and Colangelo carries saw Wells back on the attack before busy scrum half Eddie Croft was played without the ball 35 metres out in front of the posts.
The wind meant a shot at goal was out of the question so it looked like a kick to the left-hand corner was likely….at least so thought the 250 or so in the crowd and, more importantly, the home players! Instead, Reynolds and skipper Ryan Taylor-Dennehy spotted their chance and tapped and came swiftly to the right. They linked with Hathaway who found Mike Doherty who breezed around the outside defender and crossed from 20 metres. Reynolds expertly manufactured a low, driven, conversion and it was 7-7 after 18 minutes.
From the re-start Nick Doherty again made good yardage before the ball was spun wider. Clever inter-play by Angus Horne released centre Rich Murray but he was bundled into touch. On 22 minutes the younger Doherty did superbly to tidy up ball at the base of a retreating scrum before Eukaliti made a thrusting run. Props Croall and Tui Tuauika were involved in a phase showing good continuity before a knock on saw the ball lost. Sadly, though, a lower-leg injury saw talismanic centre Mike Doherty leave the pitch to be replaced by Scully. Horne moved into outside centre and Murray to the ‘12’ channel.
Whilst it would be fair to say Wells had not taken some chances they had created, it was the home side who were very much in the ascendancy at this stage. It was surprising to see them not use a kicking game to gain territory but they seemed very confident in their passing and running game and it needed important tackles from Taylor-Dennehy, Hathaway and Eukaliti, coupled with some key passes going astray to keep Hertford at bay. They even took a leaf out of the Wells play book with quick ‘tap and go’ options. The attacking momentum was only ended on 33 minutes when a huge Wells scrum earned a penalty.
Just as the visiting supporters thought their team would get to the half time whistle level despite playing into the wind, a momentary loss of concentration in the re-jigged back line saw Hertford score again, much to the frustration of the coaching team. The home team had an attacking scrum 35 metres out and when Batty threw a long-miss pass towards the left it was Parkhouse from the right wing who took the ball in space and the lively winger showed good pace to score under the posts. Batty’s simple conversion made it 14-7 on 39 minutes and there was still time for one more attack that was thwarted by sound defensive work from Colangelo before the half time whistle blew.
Half Time 14-7.
As the players re-emerged for the second period it was immediately evident that influential flanker Hathaway had not been able to shake off the calf injury he had incurred and Charley Smith replaced him. This saw Hawkins move to flanker. The loss of two key men to injury seemed likely to put a major dent in Wells’ aspirations of getting back into the game and when a vibrant Hertford opening spell saw them cross again one could have feared the worst. However, this Wells squad has spirit by the bucket load and it is testament to them that they so very nearly came away with the win.
Nick Doherty gathered and returned the kick off but that was the last time the visitors were to see the ball for three minutes. Excellent controlled play saw drive after drive at the heart of the Wells defence and, despite a crucial last-ditch Croft tackle, Hertford could not be resisted and centre Lemon scored again, with Batty adding the extra two. 21-7 after 43 minutes.
Wells’ response was superb. A scrum penalty on halfway, followed by a long Reynolds touch-find put the visitors just 15 metres out. Nicholls again hit his jumper and although the maul was halted Murray and Taylor-Dennehy made good in-roads. As the ball was switched from the right Reynolds threw a deft pass only to be tackled late. Not only was it late but it was high and there were little in the way of arms involved. Thankfully, there was no lasting damage to the Kent County 10 but a penalty and a yellow card to home flanker Dave Archer were awarded.
Wells were to channel their anger well. Taking the attacking line-out option from the penalty, Nicholls hit Hawkins and a powerful maul saw Nick Doherty gain a thoroughly deserved try to join his now injury-departed brother on the score sheet. The touch line conversion proved too difficult but it was now 21-12 after 50 minutes.
The men from Kent had their tails up now and a raking 60 metre kick from Reynolds saw them back in Hertford territory. Murray and Pancaldi made good carries before Tuauika was hauled down agonisingly short. As the phases reached 15, deliberate interference on Croft as he tried to play the ball saw another penalty and a second yellow card to the men in blue. It did not take a Ph.D in rugby to realise what was to happen next. A scrum option was taken and as Wells moved inexorably forward it was halted illegally bringing the award of a Penalty Try. 56 minutes played and it was now 21-19.
Such was the expansive desire of both sides that I would have wanted very long odds to bet that this would end up being the final score. However, the fact that despite the attacking intent on show, this was, indeed, to be the case, pays testament to the fierce defensive efforts by both teams in the second 40 minutes.
Marauding Hertford flanker Redmond Newberry was correctly made Man of the Match for his influence in this final part of the game. It started when he forced a Wells knock on as they looked to clear a ruck. He then made two powerful runs but he was well held at bay, before another booming 60 metre Reynolds kick cleared the pressure.
With Hertford restored to 14 and then 15 men they now spent a long period encamped in Wells territory. Several penalties led to several attacking line-outs as a combination of the head-wind making goal kicks difficult, plus the desire to gain a 4 try bonus point, made this the primary option for the hosts. One maul was held up over the line, another was collapsed illegally and then when a powerful counter-ruck seemed to have created a turnover in favour of the visitors the ensuing penalty saw a team warning handed out. It had taken brave covering work earlier by Horne to stop a likely try but surely now it was just a matter of time?
Understandably, another line-out was formed and when it went to ground it was Tuauika who received the ‘team’ yellow on 68 minutes. Straeche now entered the fray at prop with Hawkins sacrificed. Again, though, the next maul was defended well leading up to a Hertford scrum.
A player down they might have been but the Wells pack resisted manfully. As a result, the home side spun the ball wide and after a Lemon charge, they created a three on one overlap. Full back Harry Barker could well have scored himself but he unselfishly shipped the ball on to Parkhouse just 2 metres out. The winger had been one of the stand out players on show but he will want to forget the fumble that saw the ball lost forward. Wells could breathe again….at least they could after yet another 20 metre Nick Doherty carry from a retreating scrum. Simply magnificent and topped off by a 40 metre Reynolds clearance kick.
However, if Wells were hoping for one last chance to score it was not to be. Newberry again carried deep into the visitors territory. A series of attacking scrums were held at bay until Wells created a turnover as the clock edged into injury time. One last shot perhaps? Well no….after just 12 seconds of added time the game was over.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable game, if a bit scrappy at times, and in all fairness Hertford were deserved winners. Wells will regret the 5 minute spell either side of half time that saw 14 points conceded but given the loss of highly influential personnel during the match and the, therefore, relatively callow and inexperienced back line that finished the game this can just as much be seen as a point gained away from home against one of the “benchmark” teams in this division, rather than points dropped. That the only sustained period of Wells dominance (apart from a 5 minute spell early on) was when their opponents had players in the sin bin says a lot. However, what it also illustrates is the tenacity and work ethic of the squad as they held a team dominating territory and possession at bay.
The tough matches come thick and fast for Wells in January and next week they host a Guernsey side who will be smarting after losing the league leadership following a home defeat to Rochford Hundred. Indeed, Rochford who are the new leaders, then come to St Marks the week after next…..
Kick off v Guernsey is 2pm.
Squad: Ryan Taylor-Dennehy (Capt); Angus Horne, Rich Murray, Mike Doherty (Lucas Scully), Harvey Colangelo; Frank Reynolds, Eddie Croft; Tui Tauaika (Carl Straeche), Stuart Nicholls, Aston Croall, Agy Eukaliti, Josh Hawkins, James Pancaldi, Mike Hathaway (Charley Smith), Nick Doherty.
Elsewhere in the League
Rochford Hundred’s highly impressive 13-19 win at Guernsey takes them top after the two leaders clashed in the Channel Islands. Coming from 3-0 down the Essex team went clear in the second half and Guernsey only secured what might prove an important losing bonus point with the last play of the game. The winners now have 70 points, with Guernsey next on 68 and Wimbledon third on 65 after beating Tring 36-12. They have a game in hand still, which is the one at St Marks (this has now been re-scheduled for 14th March). The gap is 20 points to Sevenoaks on 45 who move ahead of Hertford on points difference after a hard-fought 15-26 bonus point win over bottom team Guildford. Dorking beat CS Stags 1863 28-14 to stay 6th on 44 ahead of us on 40 points. Sidcup are one point back after they beat Bedford Athletic 20-7.
The gap is then 9 points back to Tring who sit 9th on 30, ahead of CS Stags, Bedford Athletic (both on 24) and London Irish Wild Geese on 23 points, who only picked up a losing bonus point in their crunch clash at Brighton. The Seasiders’ 22-20 win enables them to stay in touch with the teams above them on 22. Guildford are 8 points adrift in 14th.
Next week’s stand out games see Rochford looking to cement top spot at home to Sidcup whilst we have the unenviable task of dealing with Guernsey’s quest for a positive reaction! 4th take on 6th as Sevenoaks host Dorking, whilst Brighton continue to have their relegation “fate” in their own hands as they travel to CS Stags.