18 - 23
Dorking Vs. Tunbridge Wells
Having assured themselves of a third season in the London & South East Premier League, the remainder of the Tunbridge Wells campaign is focused on securing as high a finishing place as possible and develop momentum into the fast-approaching off-season.
Wells travelled to Surrey to take on a Dorking side who whilst sitting in 6th (compared Wells’ 11th position) were just four points ahead of them illustrating how competitive this league is. Three players came into the squad with player-coaches Aston Croall and Dave Allen coming in at loose-head prop and flanker and highly promising Academy product Lucas Scully making his First XV debut on the wing. Other changes saw last week’s substitutes Stuart Nicholls, Matt Symonds and Max Hobbs starting at hooker, second row and wing respectively.
The warm sunny afternoon and dry ground conditions at Big Field were in stark contrast to the wet December day at St Marks when Wells had won the reverse encounter 18-3. In front of a large crowd the scene looked set for an exciting and open game and it was the visitors who kicked off playing down the slope.
Wells had a terrific start. Nicholls connected well with his jumpers most of the game and smooth line-out ball set up an attacking position which Dorking could only halt with a penalty. Scrum half Charlie Rigby took a quick tap to set his backs moving and after a typical strong run from the highly-impressive Mike Doherty it was Allen who was in support to power over for the opening try after just three minutes. the conversion from Frank Reynolds slipped wide but it was a heartening way to begin. 0-5.
From the re-start Dorking attacked with gusto and powerful wing Jospeh Mogaji made the first of several runs bursting tackles as he did. However, the Tunbridge Wells cover defence was a feature throughout and all the home team were able to get was a Killian Wilson penalty for offside on 8 minutes. 3-5.
The scrum was proving to be an early bone of contention with refereeing inconsistency sadly contributing much to this. A penalty to Dorking for wheeling put them back on the attack but when they chipped over the cover the ever-reliable skipper Ryan Taylor-Dennehy was there at full back to cover it. Shortly afterwards though the men from St Marks found themselves down to 14 men much to the delight of the home crowd when Wells talisman Nick Doherty was red-carded. The prospect of playing 65 minutes without such a key player produced an ominous feeling for the visiting supporters (especially when Wilson added a second penalty on 17 minutes) but instead they were to be rewarded with an outstanding performance combining committed defence with some periods of exciting attacking play. 6-5.
Wells seemed to be incurring the frequent displeasure of the referee but were holding firm with Mike Hathaway, Josh Hawkins and Brendan Crosilla very prominent in defence. In fact, it was the visitors who were next on the scoreboard on 23 minutes when a high tackle was penalised and Reynolds slotted a penalty to make it 6-8.
The next 15 minutes was to prove the pivotal period though as Dorking dominated possession and territory. Wave after wave of attacks saw the home side exerting immense pressure on Wells and despite some excellent clearing kicks from Rigby and Reynolds, it seemed just a matter of time before the lead changed hands. Dorking’s forwards hammered away at their opponents but Allen, Nicholls et al held firm despite being a man down. When the home team then looked to use their backs, clever defence from Mike Doherty and Hobbs, in which they flew up to smother both man and ball, thwarted the hosts. Hobbs also earned a ruck turnover penalty, before Taylor-Dennehy had to make a brave last-ditch tackle which left him with a dead leg but the line kept in tact.
As half-time approached Dorking were still camped on the Wells line and had an attacking scrum. Could the 7-man Wells pack hold firm? The answer was a resounding yes with the experienced Croall earning his side a crucial penalty. A fine kick from Reynolds saw the ensuing Wells line-out take place just 15 metres from halfway but it needed a determined Allen to secure scrappy ball. The ball was moved into the centre for what was to be a magnificent solo try. Mike Doherty first burst through his opposite number, then side-stepped the full back, before accelerating away to complete a 60 metre run and dive over. A simply superb score which deserved the additional two points when Reynolds kicked the conversion. 6-15. HALF TIME.
Wells had already exhibited immense character to rebound from the disappointment of the red card but it seemed inevitable that the mental and physical exertion would take its toll. Yet, amazingly, it was they who were to look the fresher and stronger team in the second half. Hathaway and Hobbs did a lot of important work carrying balls in different manners – one all power and the other with dancing feet. George Montgomery now also started to exert a more significant influence over proceedings.
On 45 minutes Wells stretched their lead further with a fine team try. Crosilla, Symonds and Hobbs carried before Mike Doherty again found space. He fed Taylor-Dennehy 30 metres out who evaded the first tackler before charging into the Dorking 22. He had Montgomery and Scully in support but then realising he also had the pace to beat the home full-back he dummied and went over himself for a cracking score. Reynolds conversion faded wide but it was now 6-20.
Before long Wells were back on the attack again when good hands from Scully gave Montgomery some space on the outside. His clever chip was gathered by a defender but unfortunately the late tackle on him was not seen and Dorking were able to clear their lines. The game was now opening up but was becoming imprecise in nature. When Dorking went forward Wells’ robust defence was thwarting them and unlike the first half the home side were not able to build momentum and possession. Despite being a man down, Wells were looking increasingly comfortable but their determination to win was going to be even more severely tested when Hawkins received a yellow card for a late tackle on 56 minutes.
It was now 15 against 13 and it must have been demoralising for Dorking that they could not take sufficient advantage of this. One shuddering Hathaway hit and Taylor-Dennehy clearance kick epitomised the visitors efforts although Dorking did cross for one try on 61 minutes when centre Ryan Jeffrey forced his way over. 11-20.
Indeed, Wells themselves came close to scoring when a powerful rolling maul that saw backs join their forward pals was only halted on the line. Ben Isbell joined the fray replacing Hawkins as they were restored to 14 men. Wells were now looking the more likely side to score and whilst an intelligent Rigby kick was collected by Dorking’s Wilson it resulted in an attacking line-out 5 metres out. Could the boys in blue turn the screw? Sadly, there was an accidental offside at the maul but Dorking were simply unable to relive the pressure. Scully (on his way to being awarded Man of the Match) linked well out wide with the industrious Nicholls and when the ball was passed to Reynolds he was tackled high by Rory Mitchell and the Dorking replacement received a yellow card. With Reynolds kicking the penalty it was now 11-23 on 73 minutes.
Wells soon put themselves back into Dorking territory as Allen and Mike Doherty made forward thrusts, ably supported by Symonds and Isbell. Carl Straeche replaced Crosilla. Time was now running out and Wells were on top. An excellent phase of play saw Taylor-Dennehy in space again. With an overlap out wide the bonus-point try looked on but an interception 15 metres from their own line set Dorking away and despite valiant covering efforts from Scully and Hobbs home flanker Josh Grant scored a try that was converted by Wilson. 18-23. There was no nerve-jangling ending though as the final whistle was blown.
Given the circumstance of playing 65 minutes with 14 men (and 10 with 13) this was a superb effort from Tunbridge Wells, and a performance from which Head Coach Simon Whatling and his players can derive an immense amount of pride. They now move up to 8th in the league ahead of the final home game of the campaign this Saturday when they host Kent rivals Sidcup. Like Wells their opponents have hit a rich vein of form, winning their last 4 matches to avoid relegation and move up to 9th. Having lost by a single point in a bruising game at Sidcup when they last met, the home team will be looking for a win in front of their home support and kick off at St Marks is 3pm.
Squad: Ryan Taylor-Dennehy (Capt); Lucas Scully, Mike Doherty, George Montgomery, Max Hobbs; Frank Reynolds, Charlie Rigby; Aston Croall, Stuart Nicholls, Brendan Crosilla, Josh Hawkins, Matt Symonds, Mike Hathaway, Dave Allen, Nick Doherty. Subs: Carl Straeche, Ben Isbell, Rich Murray.