With St Marks suffering the effects of the week’s heavy rainfall, the superb 4G facility at Bennett School became the venue for what was always likely to be a tough challenge for Tunbridge Wells against a powerful Guernsey side. When the teams met in September the Channel Islanders registered a 31-7 win and there was a certain amount of trepidation amongst the Wells faithful given that the visitors had lost 13-19 last week to their nearest rivals Rochford Hundred which dropped them to second spot. Would Wells be the recipients of a reaction and backlash? Ultimately, the answer was yes but only really for the last 25 minutes as Guernsey turned the screw, with Wells having managed to pour more fuel on their fire themselves too by then……
Wells made four changes to the squad that had battled hard at Hertford last week. Carl Straeche started at prop and Agy Eukaliti moved to his favoured flanker position due to the injury to the highly influential Mike Hathaway. Charley Smith, therefore, started at lock whilst fellow forwards Tom Follows and Jake Smith came onto the bench. The latter is a highly promising flanker and an Academy product who was to make his First XV debut. In the backs, Mike Doherty played despite still feeling the after affects of last week’s injury and, with Rich Murray absent through illness, he was paired at centre with Angus Horne. Another Academy product, Horne had impressed in the role temporarily last week and was to stake his claim for a more permanent role with a man of the match display. Richard Webster returned on the wing after missing the last two games and it was great to see firm fan favourite Matt Spicer back on the bench after some time away from the club.
A beautiful, still, clear blue-sky day made for a great backdrop and was to bear witness to a thrilling “try-fest” of a match. Guernsey kicked off and in what was to be a feature throughout the athletic Eukaliti soared high to gather the ball. Wells cleared their lines but the visitors had a clear desire to put width on the ball all the day and this started from the opening minutes. However, when they were halted on halfway Nick Doherty created the turnover before Josh Hawkins made a powerful 15 metre run up the right touch line. The forwards created rapid ruck ball which scrum half Eddie Croft used to free his back line. Horne then made a searing break 35 metres out before finding the instigator of the attack Doherty on his left. He powered on before being hauled to the ground just a few metres short. Again the ball was recycled quickly and two long passes later it found the unlikely figure of tight-head prop Straeche standing alone on the right wing. He gathered the ball before carrying the last defender over with him for his first try at this level. The crowd were delighted as there are few more popular players than Carl in the squad. The connection of boot to ball for Frank Reynolds’ conversion attempt brought a strange sound from the ball and it drifted wide (and it was noticeable that place kickers struggled all day with the balls). Three minutes played and 5-0.
On more than one occasion this season I think it is fair to say that Wells have been slow starters but it was the Channel Islanders who seemed to suffering from this malady this time. A strong Webster carry put the home team back In Guernsey territory and when Croft’s box kick was knocked on it was Hawkins who was on hand to re-gather. Although Reynolds’ clever kick through came to nothing, Guernsey were penalised for offside so the outside half fired a fine touch finder and Wells had an attacking line-out 15 metres out. Hooker Stuart Nicholls found his jumpers well throughout and he connected with Eukaliti on this occasion. A rolling maul was set and started to make headway as several backs joined in. However, just as it splintered and momentum seemed to be lost it was the centre-playing Doherty brother Mike who, supported by Nicholls, was to force his way over wide on the left. The tough conversion was missed but it was now 10-0 on 10 minutes.
And soon two tries were to become three. Nick Doherty, skipper Ryan Taylor-Dennehy and Horne made good ground before Guernsey managed a turnover. However, a thumping James Pancaldi tackle created pressure on the visiting backs who knocked on. Nick Doherty again carried powerfully before recycled ball found its way to Taylor-Dennehy. The full back seems to have rediscovered some of his customary “zip” since the turn of the year and his pace took him clear and deep into Guernsey territory. The cover got to him but not before he slipped the ball to Horne on his left shoulder and centre dived over for the score. Another strange sounding connection saw the conversion missed but it was now 15-0 after just 17 minutes. Spicer replaced Colangelo who had taken a heavy blow to his back.
With all the crowd confined to one side of the pitch there was a cracking atmosphere at the game. A large number of post-lunch attendees who had battled their way through Saturday afternoon traffic from the club stood shoulder to shoulder with a healthy travelling support and it was they that were to cheer next. Tui Tauaika and Eukaliti combined to create a turnover which Spicer fly hacked forward but the bounce took it away from his grasp and the visitors were awarded a penalty. A long touch kick saw a line-out and maul which was halted illegally. The large Guernsey pack chose a second bite at this particular cherry and the Wells forwards could not halt the ensuing maul in time. With the usually reliable Owen Thomas missing the conversion it was now 15-5 after 23 minutes. Worryingly for Wells it was clear that Reynolds was now inconvenienced by a leg injury. It’s testament to the Kent County player that he soldiered on for the rest of the game despite clearly being in significant discomfort.
Guernsey now also seemed to have blown away the cobwebs but it only takes a second for momentum to be lost or gained. Tauaika managed to steal the ball and it was fed to Spicer. He tore down the left wing covering 25 metres in a blink of an eye before he was superbly tackled. However, as he fell to ground he was able to engineer an exquisite pop up pass to the supporting Croft and the scrum half crossed out wide on the left. With Reynolds’ injury clearly incapacitating him it was the try scorer who now assumed place kicking duties but this his effort fell well short. However, remarkable as it might have seemed before kick off, Wells had the 4-try bonus point in the bag after just 27 minutes. 20-5.
A Wells error at the kick-off handed possession back to the visitors via a scrum and the much larger Guernsey pack were starting to demonstrate a clear edge at this set-piece. A hefty drive saw a penalty awarded. A line out followed and although the attacking grey and green maul was halted just short, a powerful pick and go saw a try scored which Thomas converted, to some ironic cheers from the sidelines at the sight of the first successful place kick of the day. 30 minutes played and it was 20-12.
To be fair to the team from St Marks they were playing some lovely, ambitious rugby but it was as much poor discipline and imprecision from the visitors which was proving key, and this was epitomised by an incident on 34 minutes. After Pancaldi had made another fine tackle, Mike Doherty was cleared out illegally some distance away from the ball by visiting prop Jacob Pinkney and he received a yellow card. Crucially, though, Wells missed touch with the penalty and when Guernsey kicked clear, chasing flanker Lewis Hillier earned them a penalty for Wells not releasing.
Before the Guernsey line-out 35 metres from the Wells line, and sensing that frustration and ‘tetchiness’ was setting in, the excellent referee Dominic Bunning called both skippers together to ask them to remind their players of the importance of discipline. The warning was to go unheeded though. After the line-out was overthrown Straeche and Charley Smith combined well to bring the ball clear before a penalty was awarded to Wells. However, the whistle brought a bout of “handbags” that led to two more players heading to the sin bin – Nicholls for the home team and flanker Dom Rice for the visitors.
An attacking line-out saw Tauaika assume throwing in duties and he found Eukaliti (who was having an impressive game). Taylor-Dennehy again made good yards and when he was awarded a penalty 35 metres out he had no hesitation in asking Reynolds to kick for the corner. This he did with such aplomb that when Tauaika connected with Hawkins the maul was formed just 5 metres out. What started as 7 v 6 rapidly became 10 and then 14 as the Wells backs joined and lifted Tauaika over the line for a very much deserved try. Sadly, the conversion again went wide but it was now 25-12 three minutes into added time.
There was still time for one more Guernsey attack during which Straeche received a bang to the head. Perhaps surprisingly when awarded a free-kick 15 metres out the visitors decided to tap and go rather than opt for a scrum and excellent Wells defence held them at bay. Half Time: 25-12.
There was little doubt that Guernsey had yet to play their best rugby. They had shown signs of petulance but this was amidst frustration stemming from a combative and aggressive Wells performance. It is an old rugby truism that “you can only play as well as you are allowed to”. Sadly, for the home team this was to be absolutely the case in the second period…..but unfortunately it was the Channel Islanders who were to dominate and illustrate exactly why they are very much in the hunt for promotion.
And yet the second half started very brightly. Jake Smith temporarily replaced Straeche as Wells kicked off. Guernsey then went through almost 20 phases only for Wells to turn the ball over and clear. Poor discipline (for virtually the last time in the game) saw a penalty to Guernsey reversed in favour of the men in blue and Reynolds found a fine touch inside the opposition 22. Both teams were now back to 15 and Straeche also returned.
Spicer, Eukaliti and Taylor-Dennehy made good initial carries to take Wells to 15 metres out. Patience was key as Wells looked to find space and when the ball was switched back to the left, Horne set off on a pacy run on an outside arc before crossing in the corner to make it a brace of tries for him. Croft’s conversion attempt dropped just short but it was now 30-12 after 48 minutes.
However, this was as good as it was to get for Tunbridge Wells as the “real” Guernsey now stood up to be counted! To be fair the last 30 minutes were completely dominated by the visitors without Wells doing an awful lot wrong. Time and again they attacked the hosts out wide and through the middle and with clear scrum dominance now, the home support quite understandably had an ominous feeling.
On 54 minutes Guernsey had an attacking line out 20 metres from the Wells line. Brave defence kept them at bay but at the expense of an injury to Hawkins who was replaced permanently now by Jake Smith, and the young debutant should be proud of his efforts in what were now very tough circumstances. An attacking Guernsey scrum was halted illegally and when another scrum was set they might have anticipated a penalty try. However, Wells front five were to do better this time and held them at bay. The was only temporary, though, as after a series of drives number eight Doug Horrocks burrowed over under the posts. Thomas converted to make it 30-19 on 59 minutes.
There was little respite now for Wells as the visitors were straight back into the home side’s half. Wells were feeling the brunt of Mr Bunning’s whistle as the penalty count rose inexorably as the pressure began to tell. Another attacking line-out saw a maul drive 20 metres before the ball was lost forward just as the try line beckoned. Home supporters relief was short-lived though as the referee had been playing a penalty advantage and to make matters worse Nick Doherty was sent to the sin bin for the original offence. There are no prizes for guessing what happened next…..a line-out was set 5 metres out and a driving maul surged over the line for the try. With Thomas adding the extra two it had become 30-26 after 64 minutes.
There was one glimmer of hope for Wells on 70 minutes. Mike Doherty did superbly well to rip the ball clear in he tackle before feeding Spicer on half-way. The gap seemed to be there with an open field in front of him but just as he looked like evading the cover a desperate last gasp ankle tap brought him to ground and then he was penalised for holding on. A case of what might have been…..
Despite fierce resistance from the likes of Tauaika and Pancaldi the momentum was all with the visitors now. Just when a ball looked to have been stolen a high tackle penalty was awarded. Yet another attacking line-out was won on the left wing and although the maul was brought down effectively and legally, Guernsey were not to be denied. They picked and drove at the posts sucking in the desperate defenders before cleverly switching the play back to the blind side for left wing Mike Agyei-King to cross. Thomas’ fine touch line conversion made it 30-33 on 72 minutes.
Doherty returned to play at prop replacing Straeche and was accompanied by Follows. Eukaliti was impeded in the air which led to a Wells line out on halfway where Nicholls linked well with Follows. Tauaika took the ball up again but suffered a heavy knock and although Wells tried hard they couldn’t break through. Follows was unlucky when he made a cracking turnover only to see that Guernsey had earned a penalty earlier in the play.
As the game moved into injury time Tauaika eventually had to depart which saw uncontested scrums and Wells down to 14 players. Could Wells hold on to a richly deserved bonus point? The answer was yes and Guernsey showed their professionalism (and a healthy respect for their opponents) by simply maintaining possession and running down the clock.
An exhilarating contest that saw 11 tries and the proverbial “game of two halves”. The Wells players will no doubt be disappointed to have let an 18 point lead slip. However, when they reflect on the game they should bear in mind the quality of the opposition and the adversity they faced in both carrying injuries into the game and then incurring several more on the pitch. They played exciting rugby at times and really should look at this as two points gained more than anything else. They faced up to the challenge with both bravery and skill.
Now it’s over to Russell Shingles and his physio team to do what they can to patch the lads up ahead of the visit of league leaders Rochford Hundred next week. Kick off is 2pm at St Marks.
Squad: Ryan Taylor-Dennehy (Capt); Richard Webster, Angus Horne, Mike Doherty, Harvey Colangelo (Matt Spicer); Frank Reynolds, Eddie Croft; Tui Tauaika, Stuart Nicholls, Carl Straeche (Tom Follows), Charley Smith, Josh Hawkins (Jake Smith), Agy Eukaliti, James Pancaldi, Nick Doherty.
Elsewhere in the League
Rochford Hundred maintained their two point lead over Guernsey at the top of the table with a 29-13 win over Sidcup. They have 75 points, Guernsey are on 73 and Wimbledon remain right on their tails on 70 with a game in hand after a hard-fought 31-40 victory at lowly Bedford Athletic. Hertford remain 4th on 46 points but will be very disappointed to have only taken a losing bonus point at London Irish Wild Geese who earned a 17-14 win in south-west London. Sevenoaks and Dorking remain in 5th and 6th on 45 on 44 after their game up the road at Knole Paddock was postponed. On 42 points we are now three clear of eight-placed Sidcup on 39.
Tring will be relieved to have edged a nail-biter at home against Guildford with the bottom team taking a losing bonus point as the game finished 16-14. The winners move on to 34 points in 9th but it is all change in the bottom five.
Wild Geese’s win over Hertford moved them from 12th to 10th on 27 points and they are joined on that mark by Brighton who have moved out of the bottom three for the first time since September after what could prove to be a hugely significant 26-29 win at CS Stags. The Chiswick-based side now fill the first relegation spot with 26 points and Bedford Athletic have dropped from 11th to 13th on 24 points. Guildford are 9 points adrift at the bottom of the ladder on 15. For your reference, the team in 12th in both of the last two campaigns went down with 49 points….#justsaying.
There are lots of top half v bottom half games next week. The three promotion-hunting teams all be expecting to win but it’s down to us (home to Rochford), London Irish Wild Geese (at Guernsey) and Sidcup (away to Wimbledon) to try and upset the apple cart. Brighton v Sevenoaks is an intriguing clash, whilst the bottom sides square off in Surrey when Guildford host Bedford Athletic.