RIVALRY – a Noun meaning “competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.”
If you substitute the word “in” to make it “on the same field” then this, perhaps, encapsulates perfectly the rugby relationship between the rugby clubs of Tunbridge Wells and Sevenoaks. That this has been an amiable rivalry, with strong friendships within and between both clubs, has not made it any less competitive over the past few years. We have, by and large, plied our trade at the same level with Wells often reaching promotion a season ahead of Oaks, only for our peers “up the A21” to join us in at the end of the following campaign. Cue a series of local derbies.
In recent times it is fair to say that the team from St Marks have held sway with the last Sevenoaks win being a nerve-wracking 26-27 victory in December 2015 in a match hosted by the Skinners School. Since then, Wells have won 5 and drawn 2 of the ensuing matches, although the teams could not be split when last facing each other in the 2019-20 pre-Covid season. Wells were undoubtedly fortunate to cling on to a 15-15 draw in the pitch-black of a dark St Marks, in a game featuring 4 attacking line-outs stemming from penalties to the visitors in the 9 minutes of added-time. The re-match was again tight with the Knole Paddock crowd breathing the sighs of relief this time as Wells missed a last grasp opportunity in an 18-18 draw. It is fair to say that Sevenoaks were “due one”…..
That was then, and this is now. Sevenoaks travelled down the A21 to Wells in confident mood. Sitting third in the league, they had won their last 6 games after an opening day loss at Hertford, scoring 211 points and conceding just 52 in the process. The hosts, on the other hand, had lost 6 of their 7 games and sat 13th of 14th in the London & Southeast Premier League. Athough they could take some heart from the fact that several of these defeats were close, it was ominous that two of the sides that had recently bested them (Sidcup and Brighton) had been thumped by over 50 points by Sevenoaks since then. Tunbridge Wells Chairman Mike Rigby said in his very engaging post-lunch speech, “the form book can go out of the window in derby matches” and of course he is correct, but current form also must have a bearing and, sadly for the St Marks’ faithful, this was to be a game that “went to form”…..
A very healthy crowd in the region of 400 saw the visitors kick off down the hill under a bright blue sky with a relatively modest (by St Marks standards) cross-field wind coming off the Frant Road. Oaks clearly showed their attacking intent in the opening exchanges, looking to achieve quick ball from the forwards and play an expansive game. That this is the same approach Wells seek to take too, bode well for an entertaining afternoon’s rugby but it was the visitors who were to gain the upper-hand and never let their grip loosen.
Ben Adams pushed a first long-range penalty shot wide for Oaks on 4 minutes but they were soon back on the attack after former Wells player Shaydn Osgood (who had moved to Wells from Oaks in the 2017/18 season following our promotion to this league) received an over-exuberant welcome back from home skipper Mike Doherty who was penalised for a high tackle. Oaks have historically had a very strong and effective line-out “catch and drive” and this brought the first trigger call of “processes”, only for them to be penalised for blocking-off. Luke Giles found an excellent relieving kick, but it was to be a temporary line-out respite though as the game progressed.
On 7 minutes, the visitors had a line-out on their left wing 40 metres out. Having moved play in-field they then cleverly switched the attack back to the blind side and created a try for a player who must be a leading contender to having one of the best names ever of a try-scorer at St Marks!? Full back Patrick Pellegrini (fresh from an invite to train with the touring Tonga national side mid-week), made an excellent outside break before beating the rushing defenders with a well-timed inside pass to winger Te Awa Hou Rare Morris (Awa to his friends) who dotted down. A fine left-footed touchline conversion by Adams made it 0-7.
Wells responded well and as Oaks started to incur the wrath of excellent young official Conor Boyle, a clever short line-out between home hooker Stuart Nicholls and prop Gabriel O’Brien kept Wells on the front foot. Flanker Toby Talbot made a strong carry and outside backs Angus Horne and Toby Wallace linked well to release the ever-dangerous left-winger Max Hobbs. A neat Giles chip under the posts, whilst penalty advantage was being played, very nearly created a try but Wells now had the chance of an attacking 5 metre line-out instead. Sadly, this time the Nicholls-O’Brien combination was thwarted as the ball failed to travel the requisite 5 metres and Oaks were able to clear their lines.
Soon after Nicholls connected with lock Jack Lord and a strong maul produced a Wells penalty Sadly, it also heralded a phase that was to last the remainder of the match, where the Wells line-out was to start misfiring, and the visitors were able to clear.
A robust James Fotheringham run put Oaks back on the attack and it took a brave sliding effort by home full back Wallace to thwart the visiting centre’s chip and chase. This came at the expense of an Oaks attacking scrum 25 metres out. The scrum set-piece was fiercely contested throughout with home ‘Man of the Match’ Charley Smith exerting a lot of pressure at loose-head when he was on the pitch. This was the case here with Oaks being marched backwards up the hill before number 8 Sean Derrick was as industrious as ever in tidying up the retreating ball. A clever Ollie Shirtcliff chip to 5 metres out put the pressure back on the home side, and although a strong Horne/Jack Smith dual tackle thwarted an initial attack, Oaks swiftly moved the ball across the pitch from the left wing to the right one. As the Wells defence scrambled to react, another change of direction and a superb running line from Sam Nicholls saw the Oaks’ second-row score unopposed between the sticks. Adams’ conversion made it 0-14 on 22 minutes.
The hosts reacted positively to this score, but with the inability to secure their own line-out ball now starting to hurt them, a raking 60-yard clearing kick by Morris soon had Wells under pressure again. As Oaks attacked, Wells Number 8 Nick Doherty’s attempted interception was adjudged a deliberate knock on, and the visitors turned down the easy three points sensing this was the moment to turn the screw by opting for an attacking line-out.
When the first rolling maul was pulled down illegally, a general warning was issued to Wells and the scene was set for take two. When the much-loved Wells Colts-product Scotty Sedgwick found Stuart Coleman, a maul was set and there was a certain inevitability about the outcome as it rolled forward over the try-line, with Sedgwick dotting down. I have said it before, and do not apologise for saying it again, that to this old-school Welsh former-lock and referee, a rolling maul done well is quite simply “a thing of beauty” and this was not to be the last time the St Marks crowd (well your correspondent anyway) would have the chance to “enjoy” the sight of one performed perfectly. Adams’ conversion drifted just short of the left-hand post, so it was now 0-19 on 29 minutes.
This try was to herald a remarkable period when the visitors went 20 minutes without earning a penalty of their own, but sadly for the home support, Wells were unable to capitalise on this, even when Oaks were temporarily down to 14 and then 13 players. On 33 minutes Osgood was sent to the sin-bin for a high tackle on opposite number Horne but with an inability to secure their own line-out Wells were having to work incredibly hard to build pressure. Scrum-half Tom West and Giles tried to up the tempo and both Talbot and Josh Hawkins carried well but over-elaboration in midfield saw the initial opportunity wasted.
Another penalty to Wells on the Oaks 22 metre line this time saw a scrum quite rightly chosen as the attacking option, and as the ball was moved wide the second Oaks centre Fotheringham was also given a yellow card for an adjudged high shot. Was this was Wells’ time to strike before half-time and with the advantage of the hill in the second half? Another attacking scrum saw Oaks collapse as they were a player light having moved Derrick into the backs, and surely now in front of the posts another scrum was the best option to either bring him in to the set-piece or to push Oaks back again? However, ours is a much easier game from the touchline and a quick tap penalty was taken instead – and a knock-on later the chance was gone.
The second half saw forwards Tommy Justice and Josh Brockman replace Nicholls and Lord and both were very industrious (sadly before injury in the latter’s case) in what was, ultimately, to prove a losing effort. With their two-player advantage, Wells started the second period on the front foot but minutes 40-45 were about as good as it was to get for the home side. A three on two overlap was created only for a midfield pass to go to ground. Another dominant Wells scrum maintained field position, but the Oaks defence was as good as their attack all game and they eventually earned a breakdown turnover penalty which not only enabled them to exit their half, but also after another penalty was needed to thwart the ensuing line-out, they were now back within 10 metres of the Wells try-line on the right-wing in front of the clubhouse.
“Clinical” as is a good a word as any to describe what happened next. “Processes” was the call, Sedgwick again found Coleman and ten metres later it was a case of deja-vu as the hooker bagged a brace of tries, and with it the try bonus point for his side. With the conversion missed it was now 0-24 after 47 minutes.
Rich Murray came into the Wells back-line and the home team were awarded a penalty from the kick-off. However, it was to be 18 minutes before they could take this. First half try-scorer Sam Nicholls took a heavy blow but both clubs’ medical teams were on the pitch within moments to assist the stricken player. This is a tough game we play, especially at this level, and first-class medical support is essential to facilitating our players feeling confident to take the field. This was borne out by all involved here and from speaking to the Sevenoaks Director of Rugby today, he wants to send “a big thanks to your medical team who worked with ours to make sure he was ok”….and the important thing is that Sam is, indeed, “ok” suffering the after-effects of a concussion and, thankfully, nothing worse.
Such a long mid-game break is inevitably disruptive, but I think it is fair to say that it was Oaks who picked up the tempo best from hereon in for the last half-hour of play. It took strong Tom Pithouse and Hawkins tackles to keep Oaks at bay, but it was quickly a case of “deja-vu” (again!) as an attacking line-out was set in the same right-hand corner as before the injury break. Again, Sedgwick found Coleman and it looked inevitable that the hooker would gain what would have been (for him) a very special hat-trick of tries as the maul surged forward. However, with the home pack putting up a sterner defensive effort this time, Mr Boyle was clearly in on a case of “jug avoidance” as he blew for a penalty try instead of allowing Sedgwick to dot down. 72 minutes (on the running clock) and it was now 0-31.
From the re-start marauding Oaks flanker Fred Richardson carried strongly but Wells were still in there battling. Hawkins (prior to a head injury ending another huge shift early),scrum-half West, both Doherty brothers and Talbot continued to play with great pride, but this was now turning into the proverbial “tough day at the office”. Hobbs gathered a cross-field kick and almost eluded the Oaks cover but a fine Fotheringham tackle brought him down.
Oaks attacked from a scrum and the elusive Pellegrini beat two players before finding the supporting Fotheringham, who in turn drew full-back Wallace and fed inside to scrum-half Henry Galligan, taking the “number 9 line” to cross for the try. Adams converted and it was 0-38 on 82 minutes.
Hobbs almost got on the end of another chip through, only for Morris to gather the ball in the face of three chasing Wells players. Oaks forwards Matt McCrae and Coleman drove through the Wells defence, but brave last-ditch cover held them out, only for Charley Smith to be sent to the sin-bin. Oaks went to the tried and tested line-out, but this time it launched flanker Richardson on a rumbustious run that saw him break through 4 tackles to get the try. Adams converted and although there was still 6 minutes of injury time to play that was to be the end of the scoring.
Tunbridge Wells 0 Sevenoaks 45
Squad: Toby Wallace; Jack Smith (Rich Murray), Angus Horne, Mike Doherty (captain), Max Hobbs; Luke Giles, Tom West; Charley Smith, Stuart Nicholls (Tommy Justice), Gabriel O’Brien, Tom Pithouse, Jack Lord (Josh Brockman) Josh Hawkins, Toby Talbot, Nick Doherty.
I’ll end where I started. Based on league results thus far this game went very much to form, despite no lack of spirit or effort from the Wells’ lads, and it will be no surprise if this Sevenoaks squad that has been building and strengthening over the past 3-4 seasons go on to challenge for the league title. For Wells, the immediate task at hand is clear – to patch up some of the walking wounded and re-group ahead of another “Kent” derby next week against 11th placed Westcombe Park.
As Interim Director of Rugby Chaz Spence recently pointed out, with a brand new squad and coaching team, the club is having to take this as a “long-term plan and it’s going to take some time to bring it all together…and it’s taking time for it all to come together on the pitch in an extremely competitive league”. Ahead of the league re-structuring at the end of this season, if a transition year was needed, he correctly points out that “then this is probably a good year to do it”. However, whilst the top teams in this division are now clearly self-evident, Wells should, as a minimum, be looking to garner wins against those sides in the bottom half of the league, and the game at Orpington next Saturday would be a good place to kick-start this. All travelling support will be gratefully received.
In other results, Sevenoaks’ squad strength was evident in their II XV’s 9-74 win against a weakened Wells equivalent, but on a brighter note the Wells’ Under 14s A&B beat their Sevenoaks opponents by an aggregate of 22 tries to 3.