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Tunbridge Wells Vs. Sidcup

Four games ago both Tunbridge Wells and Sidcup hovered on the verge of the relegation battle in the London & South East Premier League. However, the Kent rivals had struck such rich veins of form that by the time they met at St Marks the teams had risen to mid-table safety, sitting 8th and 9th respectively on 60 points. Wells had won three and drawn one of these four games whilst the visitors had won their last four so this was very much a case of two in-form sides meeting with county “bragging rights” at stake. Games between the two clubs had been tight affairs in recent years and this had been evident again when the sides played in South London before Christmas where Sidcup triumphed 10-9.

Tunbridge Wells made two changes to the starting team from the win against Dorking with Carl Straeche and Ben Isbell stepping up from the bench to replace the unavailable Aston Croall and the suspended Nick Doherty. Josh Pankhurst, Christian Earle and Jake Caddy returned to the squad as replacements.

Wells kicked off down the St Marks hill with the strong south-easterly win behind them. The home side started on the front foot but a loose pass from Frank Reynolds to Mike Doherty brought the attack to a halt. This was to epitomise a lack of precision that characterised much of the boys in blue’s attacking play in the opening period and another factor was ill discipline that saw the excellent referee penalise Wells frequently. An offside penalty was followed by a tackle offence and on 4 minutes Sidcup outside half Josh Twyford slotted a 35 metre penalty into the wind for a 0-3 lead.

Dave Allen (in what is likely to be his last home game before retirement) and Doherty were evident throughout with ball in hand but whenever Wells lost the ball Sidcup were quick to pounce, sending the ball back into Wells territory. It needed a fine Charlie Rigby clearance kick to relieve the pressure. This was just temporary relief though and when a Reynolds kick was blocked it needed an alert Matt Symonds to recover the ball. A series of attacking line-outs and scrums for the visitors ensued but with the front row of Straeche, Stuart Nicholls and Brendan Crosilla having a clear edge in the scrums, the home team were able to keep the visitors at bay.

Eventually, Wells did get a foot hold in Sidcup territory after strong Allen and Mike Hathaway runs. Even though they could not retain possession Josh Hawkins charged down the attempted clearance kick and looked likely to score a try before the ball skipped away from him on the firm spring ground. Doherty made two good half-breaks but just as he looked about to escape fine last-ditch tackles kept him at bay. This was to prove just a temporary hindrance though. An attacking penalty earned another scrum penalty and from this one Rigby was able to feed Doherty who crashed through two tackles to score a deserved try under the posts making Reynolds’ conversion a simple one on 30 minutes. 7-3.

A raking George Montgomery 50 metre clearance put Wells back into Sidcup territory but the visitors exhibited an effective “catch and drive” game all day and used this to relieve pressure. Indeed, it was they who had the next opportunity but a long-range Twyford penalty fell short into the wind. The men in white looked the more likely to score at this stage but a fine Lucas Scully defensive kick gained 40 metres.

As half-time approached, play was halted as a scuffle took place, much against the spirit of the match to date, which ultimately saw both Wells’ lock Hawkins and Sidcup’s scrum half James Munton sent to the sin-bin for 10 minutes. Sidcup were awarded a penalty but the home-team held firm against the attacking line-out to take a 7-3 lead into half time.

There were understandable concerns as to whether this slim lead would prove sufficient playing up the slope and into the wind but in the wise words of the club President “the wind and slope never makes a lot of difference to us” given the ball-in-hand ambition and nature of the Wells’ play. What was needed was more control and slicker play when in possession and there were to be enough periods of this to secure the win.

However, yet again, the initial signs were ominous as the home side failed to deal with Sidcup s kick-off. This led to an attacking line-out 25 metres out and whilst Wells were aware an attacking catch and drive was the most likely option, knowing it and stopping it are two different things! After moving inexorably forward for 15 metres the maul had seemed to come to a halt but Sidcup remained patient. A second surge then built more momentum and it was second row Joe Thomas who got up with the ball having scored the try. Twyford’s conversion made it 7-10 on 42 minutes.

Sidcup were soon back on attack after a clever Jamie Cutler kick but Wells exhibited super skill sets when great hands from Isbell to fellow Academy-product Scully released the winger into space. He had Montgomery in support but opted to kick-ahead and not only did the ball evade the chasers but Sidcup ran it back and it needed a typically robust Hathaway tackle to bring this to a halt. From the turnover it was Wells who went close as Reynolds was thwarted deep in Sidcup territory. Max Hobbs came off his wing at the attacking scrum but when the ball was spun wide it was lost and Sidcup were able to clear. On 50 minutes hooker Pankhurst replaced Straeche, who had been powerful in the tight, and Nicholls moved sideways to prop.

Sidcup now camped in Wells’ half for 10 minutes but could not turn this pressure into points. Crosilla, Pankhurst and Isbell made big tackles as the blue defensive line held firm. Caddy made a welcome return from injury to replace Scully and soon after Wells regained their lead through a superb individual try. There did not seem to be that much threat when the ball was fed to Doherty on the blind-side 40 metres out but he beat two men with pace and guile before showing strength to power through the last tackle for a terrific try. He had touched down wide on he left making the conversion seemingly impossible for Reynolds into the wind but he struck the ball magnificently to make it 14-10 on 61 minutes.

Shortly after skipper Ryan Taylor-Dennehy, Hobbs and Caddy linked well and a high tackle saw a home line-out 35 metres out. Sidcup were then caught offside and Reynolds cleverly used the wind to send the penalty kick through the posts from 30 metres out on 66 minutes. 17-10.

A fierce Hathaway run from the re-start took Wells back up-field and when Hobbs contested a Rigby box-kick he earned another penalty. This time, though, Reynolds’ penalty shot fell just short. A period of aerial “tennis” then took place before a high tackle by Allen saw the stalwart number 8 given a yellow card and 10 minutes in the sin-bin. With ten minutes of normal time to play could Sidcup take immediate advantage?

The answer was to be a resounding “no”. Their attacking line-out saw a forward drive up the middle but Hathaway secured a crucial tackle turnover and penalty. Into the wind Montgomery took a clever quick tap penalty before linking with Taylor-Dennehy to bring the ball clear. The ball was moved across the pitch and Isbell looked to have released Nicholls for a gallop to glory but the ball went down. Earle now joined the fray for the hard-working Symonds.

Sidcup had several more attacking opportunities but the combination of imprecision and intense pressure from the home side kept them at bay. Reynolds made a long clearance kick and Caddy made good ground via a run as Wells endeavoured to run down the clock. Allen returned and immediately Wells turned over a Sidcup scrum. Time was up and Wells had just edged a hard-fought match.

With one last game to play (away to 5th placed Hertford) Wells move up to 7th on 64 points but will be looking for a win to end their season on as they know that should a series of results go against them they could yet drop to 10th. Kick off is at 3pm and all travelling support will be very welcome.

Squad: Ryan Taylor-Dennehy (Capt); Lucas Scully, (Jake Caddy), Mike Doherty, George Montgomery, Max Hobbs; Frank Reynolds, Charlie Rigby; Carl Straeche (Josh Pankhurst), Stuart Nicholls, Brendan Crosilla, Josh Hawkins, Matt Symonds (Christian Earle), Ben Isbell, Mike Hathaway, Dave Allen.

By Graham Withers