ST AUSTELL'S promotion hopes were left hanging by a thread after a sobering defeat on their first ever visit to Chard.
The Saints still top the table by two points, but the dream of National League rugby is now out of their hands as the Cornishmen will need to rely on their rivals slipping up in their games in hand.
The damage was done in the first half, when the Somerset side dominated the forward exchanges to run up a 29-10 lead by half time.
The visitors were much better after the break and although they "won" the second half 14-3, it was never enough to seriously threaten the home side's lead.
On a beautiful sunny day in Somerset, the Chard forward's dictated the pace of the game. The visitors' scrum was under pressure from the start and the home side ensured that the Saints backs were starved of any quality quick ball.
Infringements at scrum time gave Chard an early penalty from fly half Chris Doak to open the score and this was quickly followed by another kick to touch.
The Saints were driven back by a well-executed catch and drive which ended in a heap of bodies behind the try line.
Referee Brian Perry took his time before awarding the try with lock Alan Henley being credited with the score. Doak's excellent touchline conversion put the home side 10-0 in front.
The Saints responded well and finally managed to get some pace and tempo into their game.
Good work by Paul Winterbottom created the space for hooker Miles Davey to crash over with Dan Pearce converting the try.
Chard were soon back on the attack and although the Saints repelled another strong lineout surge, the home side spun the ball wide for full back Bryan Harrison to score in the opposite corner. Doak again made light of the touchline conversion.
The Saints were sucker punched moments later when a scrum feed went straight through the tunnel. The Chard centres seized the opportunity to run through a statuesque defence, with Neil Douglas touching down.
Amazingly, Doak missed the conversion – it was to be his only miss on a near perfect day with the boot.
Dan Pearce pulled back three more points but disaster struck as half time loomed.
A knock on by Saints on the halfway line allowed Chard to set up a kick and chase that was only stopped 5m from the try line.
A scrum collapse with Chard going forward could mean only one thing, a penalty try to put the home side 29-10 up at the break.
Saints improved after the break and Cornish hopes were stirred when replacement Jack Grigg scored under the posts after an excellent break by Dan Pearce who also added the extras.
The Saints were now enjoying some sustained possession and territory but Chard were disciplined and determined in defence.
The visitors thought they had scored when Ashley Taylor dived in at the corner but unfortunately the winger's foot hit the touch line on the approach.
Chard were under increasing pressure and hooker Simon Jenkins took one for the team when he was yellow carded for preventing the quick release of the ball from a ruck on the try line.
Unfortunately, the Saints turned over in the next attack and the moment was gone with Chard finally able to release the shackles and clear their lines.
Doak's penalty from 45m with 10 minutes to go turned a difficult task into mission impossible. To their credit, the Saints battled to the end and their efforts were rewarded when flanker Ian Venner dived over to finish off some excellent team play. Dan Pearce's touchline conversion was not enough to earn the visitors a losing bonus point.
Chard were worthy winners. Their well-drilled streetwise pack used all their guile to slow the game and disrupt Saints' possession at every opportunity.
St Austell now have to pick themselves up ahead of another tough game when they travel to third-placed Cleve.
Saturday's trip to Bristol is now very much a "must win" game for the Saints if they are to have any chance of staying at the top.