North Petherton 31 St Austell 22
ST AUSTELL endured a tough baptism to life in South West One as they went down four tries to three at North Petherton, writes Paul Hayes.
The Somerset side finished third in the league last season, so this was always going to be a tough challenge for the newly-promoted Saints.
Although they returned to Cornwall empty handed, there were many positives and several lessons to be learnt that will put the Cornishmen in great stead for the coming season.
The match day got off to an inauspicious start with a couple of late cry-offs adding to an already long injury list. With the Sinners squad duly raided, the travelling Saints faced long delays on the A30 clogged with home-bound holiday makers.
There was a makeshift feel to the team and it was perhaps not surprising that the Saints got off to a slow start.
Under pressure in the scrum, Pethy stole one against the head to launch a blindside move that sent winger Mike Stevens in at the corner after four minutes for an unconverted try.
Pethy scented blood and their hard running backline were looking very menacing, but the Saints were stoic in defence to keep the hosts at bay and a barnstorming run from flanker Paul Winterbottom took play deep into the Pethy half to finally relieve the pressure.
Debutant full-back Dan Pearce's silky run caused all sorts of panic in the home 22, but the Saints' passing was not sharp enough to exploit the gaps that had been created.
The visitors were now enjoying a period in the ascendancy but the threat from Pethy was always there and the Saints were grateful to a last ditch tackle from Dan Pearce to thwart an explosive counterattack.
Having regained territorial advantage, Pethy forced the pace and over anxious defence gifted two quick fire penalties for full back Harry Roberts to stretch the lead to 11-0 with 31 minutes gone.
The Saints finished the half strongly and a promising attack was stopped in its track by a stray Pethy hand.
After a lengthy lecture to home captain Sam Williams, his Saints counterpart Shepherd slotted over the penalty. With the clock ticking down to the interval, Saints lock Adam Pearce was shown yellow for hands in a ruck.
The 14 Saints were containing the inevitable second half onslaught until a penalty was awarded for a collapsed maul. Roberts had no problems extending the lead, but calamity struck for the visitors with just two minutes left on the sin binning.
A powerful surge by the home pack stole the ball from a Saints scrum on the 22. A deft kick by scrum half Ben Tracey flat footed the defence allowing Stevens to dot down in the corner.
The restart was kicked straight out and the error was compounded by Saints tacklers uncharacteristically standing off allowing the Pethy backs to surge through. Stevens sealed his hat-trick by popping up on the opposite wing to take the score to 24-3.
Any fears that Saints' heads would drop were soon dispelled as they regrouped and reorganised.
Driven on by skipper Shepherd and inspirational No8 Adam Kellow the Saints started to gain forward momentum.
Another jinking run by Dan Pearce brought play deep into home territory. Centre Curtis Newberry was in close support, before prop Mark Martin hit the line at speed, side stepping two would be defenders to score under the posts, Shepherd converted.
Saints were now on top but were hit by the ultimate sucker punch. With the Saints over-committed to attack, turnover ball allowed Pethy to run at large gaps in the Cornish back line. Centre Damian Griffin finished the breakaway under the posts with Roberts converting to seal victory. The Saints continued to pound away, but were left frustrated by Pethy's continuous infringements.
On 76 minutes, a long overdue yellow card was finally issued to a Pethy forward for persistent offending. The visitors took full advantage with a lineout catch and drive releasing Shepherd to force his way over.
The Saints finished the match in style when after 10 phases of play Winterbottom was able to crown a fine individual display with a try. Shepherd's conversion was followed by the final whistle.
There were some encouraging individual performances, but it was not until the final quarter that the units started to functionally cohesively.
This was perhaps not surprising, given the disruption in the preparations and it says much for the strength in depth that the Saints were still highly competitive against a strong North Petherton.
There were promising debuts from Dan Pearce, Miles Davey and Ashley Taylor and the Saints young players will have learnt a lot from today's encounter.
This Saturday the Saints travel to more familiar territory to take on Bideford (3pm).