Tunbridge Wells started this season’s London South East Premier League with a flourish but 2019 ended as something of a damp squib with two disappointing (and heavy) defeats in December. Brighton might well have arrived at St Marks in a relegation spot at 13th but they were just 16 points behind the hosts in 7th and had showed much-improved form in the past few games. With Wells’ next three games being against teams in the top four this was a game that they could ill-afford to lose.
The match day squad featured four changes from the last game at Dorking and, in particular, featured the very welcome return from long-term injury of Rich Murray and the hugely influential Mike Hathaway. Player-Coach Aston Croall came in at prop for his first game since impressing against Sevenoaks and flanker James Pancaldi was also back after his man of the match effort in defeat at Sidcup. This saw something of a reshuffle in the starting XV. Josh Hawkins moved into the second row as Charley Smith went to the bench, to be joined by Ben Isbell as Pancaldi and Hathaway edged ahead of them in the back row; in the backs skipper Ryan Taylor-Dennehy returned to his customary full-back spot as Murray replaced him at centre and Angus Horne had his first start on the right wing.
Bright sunshine and a blue sky greeted the teams and the playing surface had recovered well. Tunbridge Wells kicked off playing down the slope with an unusual north-westerly breeze behind them. A switch of direction that was dealt with by Brighton via a boxed clearance kick However, Taylor-Dennehy seemed back to something approaching his best form throughout and he returned the ball into the visitors half before connecting with Horne who made ground.
It needed a fine break by Brighton skipper David McIlwaine to relieve early pressure as the outside half took the ball back towards the halfway line before his pass to his supporting runners went into touch. When the Wells line-out was over thrown Brighton had a scrum put in. Wells were, though, to have a significant edge at the set scrum all game with Tui Tauaika strong and Croall exerting huge pressure from the tight-head position. Agy Eukaliti and Hathaway took the ball on before Reynolds made an excellent break, only for his final pass to go astray.
Wells was soon back on the attack with a superb Nick Doherty charge making 25 metres before the supporting Hathaway was hauled to ground with the ball. A try scoring opportunity was still on offer but when the ball went wide to the right the Brighton defence was up quickly exerting pressure and forcing a knock on. The visitors clearing kick was well dealt with by scrum half Eddie Croft who linked with Taylor-Dennehy and Mike Doherty before Reynolds made further in-roads with ball in hand. However, McIlwaine was able to steal the ball at the ruck and was awarded a penalty, enabling his team to clear their lines.
Isbell was now on as temporary blood replacement for Nicholls. Wells were very much in charge at the stage and after another series of phase play they were awarded a penalty which Reynolds converted from 30 metres in front of the posts. 3–0 after 16 minutes.
The tide was starting to turn in Brighton’s favour (despite one outrageous Croall pass between his legs!) as Wells started to fall foul of the referee. Discipline issues saw a rapid series of penalties in favour of the visitors so that after 25 minutes the count was 5-1 in favour of the men from Sussex. Imprecision was hurting them, though, and one misdirected penalty kick to touch simply gave Reynolds the opportunity to fire a wind-assisted drop out deep into Brighton territory. Nick Doherty was clearly enjoying have his long-standing back row colleague Hathaway back, and they combined again before a fine Taylor-Dennehy touch kick took Wells into the visitors 22. Hawkins seemed to have stolen the ball legitimately at the next breakdown but was (perhaps) harshly penalised and Brighton received another penalty to add to their collection…….
This led to another period of Brighton being encamped in the home half. An attacking line-out produced a dangerous maul that appeared to be moving inexorably towards the Wells line before it splintered and went to ground. Unfortunately, Mr Lamb (who was to have a very good game) deemed it to have been halted illegally and another penalty awarded. The line-out was knocked on to Wells’ relief, and the home front row then once again put their opponents under pressure and were awarded a clearing penalty.
Neither side’s line-out worked particularly efficiently in the first half but it was Brighton who had the lion’s share of possession in the second quarter and they looked to use an expansive game to exploit this. The Wells defence was proving robust though, with the likes of Eukaliti and Croall making influential tackles in wide channels. After several minutes of attacking play it was Hathaway who secured a key turnover and Taylor-Dennehy’s kick took Wells back into their opponents half.
The game was very open at this stage and this suits the way Wells want to play. An excellent Pancaldi offload put Hathaway surging into space and he burst through a tackle as he made 25 metres. Brighton’s scrambling defence prevented him from finding the supporting players he had on either side, but when he was eventually dragged to ground he was just 10 metres short. Croft was able to get quick ball to his backs and Mike Doherty’s eye for a miss-pass saw him find winger Horne who crossed for his first try at this level. With Reynolds’ straight-forward conversion it was now 10-0 on 35 minutes.
The try-scorer was soon back in the thick of the action when he chased up his own kick and delivered a thumping tackle that belied his physical stature. It was certainly well received by the 150 or so predominantly home supporters! The last few minutes of the half saw Max Hobbs and Tauaika link well in attack and some further impressive Eukaliti, Pancaldi and Hawkins defensive work as Wells secured a hard-earned but deserved half-time lead. 10-0.
On returning to the field for the second period Brighton would have been justifiably optimistic of turning matters around with the advantage of the slope and breeze. However, it is something of a truism that in recent years Wells seem to have played their best rugby playing up the hill towards the clubhouse and this was to be the case once again. In fact, the second half was to witness as good a 40 minutes of rugby as the boys from St Marks have produced all season.
Wells had a lot of good field position in the first half but, thwarted by robust Brighton defence and poor discipline, they had struggled to convert this into points. There was no doubt that their supporters would have liked to see an early score in the second half to settle any anxieties and they were to get their wish.
Reynolds was having a huge influence on the game and when another of his long territory-gaining kicks was only partially cleared, the home side had an early attacking line-out 35 metres out. Tauaika hit Hawkins before the prop (come ‘thrower-in’) peeled around the tail and into the heart of the Brighton midfield defence. Reynolds then put centre Mike Doherty into the sort of midfield gap the ‘try machine’ thrives on. Bursting clear from 30 metres he showed too much power and pace for the defenders before diving over for a try that Reynolds converted with aplomb. 43 minutes played and it was now 17-0.
From the re-start number eight Doherty took responsibility for the clearance kick. McIlwaine tried to launch another attack for the visitors but after his initial break the follow up pass went forward and Wells had a scrum 10 metres inside their own half. The scrum set-piece was much improved by the presence of Croall and Brighton were penalised again for collapsing.
This gave Wells a fine attacking platform that they were to exploit to its full potential. Hawkins again soared high to secure the line-out before a powerful maul was set. This made 20 metres before the ball found Horne coming off his wing for an incisive run that ended with him slipping a lovely pass to the supporting Murray, for the ever-popular centre to mark his first game back with a try. That it was virtually under the posts made the score even better as Reynolds popped over the extra two. 24-0 on 48 minutes.
Although there was still over half an hour to play this felt like the decisive moment in the game. From the kick-off Eukaliti was able to secure the ball with ease and Wells were soon back in the Brighton half. Tauaika and Hathaway again drove powerfully forward before Nicholls received more running repairs. The hooker has become an integral part of the starting line-up this season and all were relieved to see him continue.
It was, therefore, somewhat against the run of play when Brighton eventually troubled the scorers. A penalty saw an attacking line- out and after McIlwhinie’s initial break, full-back Maxx Morris showed exquisite footwork and good pace to cross for an unconverted try. 24-5 after 55 minutes.
To be fair, though, this was the only time the visitors were to threaten the Wells line until deep into injury time. It was the home team who resumed control and then further extended their lead. After a Brighton forward pass, Wells again secured their own solid scrum ball and this enabled a typical Nick Doherty power-packed run. He linked with Reynolds who found the ever-eager Croft. When the ball was released from the ruck to Reynolds again, the Kent County 10 made a thrusting run breaking two tackles before a sublime offload to Hathaway who became the second returning player to cross the whitewash. It was fitting that it was these two players who combined for the bonus point try as on a day of excellent individual performances these were arguably the stand-out pair. Reynolds added the extra two to complete a satisfying 100% kicking day too. After 61 minutes this made it 31-5.
Harvey Colangelo replaced Murray (which saw the versatile Horne move to outside centre) and Charley Smith came on for Hawkins in the second row. Another Nick Doherty run took play away from the Wells line before a raking Reynolds clearance kick made 40 metres. Hathaway should have been mightily pleased with his comeback game and now made way for Isbell.
Brighton, to their credit, were still trying to create opportunities but Wells now had their measure and even a seemingly clever kick through was comfortably dealt with by Isbell. Indeed, this put Wells back on the front foot as Taylor-Dennehy burst forward before finding Tauaika. As Wells tried to go wide a Brighton defender knocked the ball forward and as this was correctly deemed deliberate, the visitors were now temporarily down to 14 men as a yellow card was shown.
Wells opted for the attacking scrum and a slick backs move almost saw Horne get outside his opposite man to put Hobbs into space on the left. Fine continuity saw the ball make its way to Nicholls on the right-wing and he beat two men before finding Colangelo with an inside pass. Just as the replacement looked like he might get over desperate defence thwarted him. However, it was at the expense of a penalty 5 metres out and with such scrum dominance there was no surprise when Taylor-Dennehy opted for the set piece. There was a certain inevitability about the outcome as the men in blue moved towards the Brighton line and a deliberate collapse gave the referee little option but to award a Penalty Try. 38-5 after 76 minutes.
As the game moved into injury time Brighton looked likely to cross in the right corner but a superb Mike Doherty and Colangelo combined tackle thwarted them in front of the eagle-eyed linesman. Hawkins returned for Nicholls and Murray replaced a limping Taylor-Dennehy but even though replacement Smith received a yellow card for illegally halting a rolling maul, Wells were determined to prevent any further breaches and they managed this until a Reynolds kick to touch brought the final whistle.
With such a tough run of games ahead of them this month, this could prove to be a crucial bonus-point win. It will, however, be the manner of this win, as much as anything else, that will undoubtedly please Head Coach Simon Whatling. The return from injury of important players and a much stronger set-piece will be other encouraging elements to take into this week’s preparation for the task away next week at 4th placed Hertford. Kick off is 2pm.
Squad: Ryan Taylor-Dennehy (Capt); Angus Horne, Rich Murray (Harvey Colangelo), Mike Doherty, Max Hobbs; Frank Reynolds, Eddie Croft; Tui Tauaika, Stuart Nicholls, Aston Croall, Agy Eukaliti, Josh Hawkins (Charley Smith), James Pancaldi, Mike Hathaway (Ben Isbell), Nick Doherty.
Elsewhere in the League
Guernsey continue at the top of the table, but only just, after leaving it late to win a hard-fought game 14-8 against Wells’ opponents next week Hertford. Rochford Hundred’s 59-7 bonus point win over Bedford Athletic means they are now just one point (67 v 66) behind the Channel Islanders. Despite having a game in hand. Wimbledon are now 6 points back in third after Sevenoaks’ superb 24-16 bonus point win over them at Knole Paddock. This keeps Sevenoaks in fifth place on 40 points, one behind 4th placed Hertford, and one ahead of Dorking (who came from 26-8 behind to win 26-30 at London Irish Wild Geese) and us on 39 points. Sidcup won 22-34 at Tring to stay 8th on 35 points ahead of the team they beat on 30.
It is getting very tight in the relegation places with the 5 remaining teams covered by 10 points, and with bottom side Guildford showing some real fight as epitomised by a 10-10 draw at CS Stags 1863. Stags are 10th on 24, ahead of Bedford Athletic (on points difference), Wild Geese on 22, Brighton on 18 and Guildford on 14.
Next week’s stand out games are at the top and the bottom. It doesn’t get much bigger than when first play second as Guernsey host Rochford Hundred, whilst at the bottom Brighton v London Irish Wild Geese could also prove highly significant. Wimbledon will be looking to bounce back at home to Tring.