Bideford 15, St Austell 21
ST AUSTELL secured their first ever league win at Bideford to take the initiative in the race for the title, writes Paul Hayes.
A fantastic match played in the best of spirits, this top of the table clash was the epitome of all that is good about west country rugby.
The two titans of Western Counties West locked horns on the banks of the Torridge to belie the sticky conditions and deliver a game full of passion, commitment, skill and drama.
Played in the best of spirit and well managed by referee Paddy Dummett, this pulsating spectacle ebbed and flowed throughout to enthral a packed King George's Field before delivering a nail biting finale.
A fired up home side seized the early initiative to lay siege to the Saints' try line. The pressure told when hooker Chris Snell rounded off a well-executed catch and drive line out routine with an unconverted try.
The early set back galvanised the Cornishmen who proceeded to dominate the next 20 minutes. Wave after wave of attacks were repelled by a resolute and well organised home defence to frustrate the visitors.
Twice the Saints crossed the try line only for brave last ditch defending to prevent the ball from being grounded. Skipper Andy Ashwin's astute drop goal ensured his side got some reward for their efforts, this was quickly followed by a Matt Shepherd penalty for offside to edge the Saints in front.
With 20 minutes gone the crowd knew that a classic encounter was unveiling itself in front of their eyes. Bideford started to mount some menacing attacks to launch their flying wingers but found the Saints' defence equally committed and well drilled.
Out of nowhere the Devon side scored when Snell charged down a box kick to score his second try in the corner. Again the setback inspired the visitors to greater efforts and flanker Paul Winterbottom finished off a surging rolling maul to grab a narrow 11-10 lead for the Saints at half-time.
Bideford started the second half with real purpose and though the Saints were being stretched at times the defensive line held firm.
The Saints were grateful to No8 Rob Jeffs and scrum half Shepard's quick reactions on a couple of occasions when the home side threatened, but the early storm had been weathered.
The pendulum of ascendency now swung to the Saints as they put Bide under severe pressure just ten metres out.
Lock Scott McNally stole a home line out, Winterbottom was just held up short but his deft pass to Shepherd provided the room for winger Alex Welland to dive over.
The score unsettled Bideford who were now hanging on as the Saints launched their big runners. Powerful surges by lock Adam Pearce and blindside Adam Kellow nearly breached the defensive wall and Welland was held up.
The Saints were not to be denied and it was Pearce who finally breached the Devonian citadel to gleefully touchdown to the delight of the travelling support.
The game was far from won and Bideford are far too good a side to concede after all their early efforts. To their great credit they steadied themselves to turn the tide and with 15 minutes remaining Snell scored his third try of the afternoon from another catch and drive to set up a barnstorming finish.
The game bounced between the two 22s as each side searched for the opportunity to deliver the killer blow. A break out from defence by Bideford had Saints' hearts in their mouths before replacement lock Mark Vian intervened to tackle the marauding James Buckland into touch.
The referee eventually signalled time to give Shepherd the opportunity to kick to touch and bring the curtain down on a magnificent game.
Bideford is a club admired at Tregorrick, like the Saints they are a community based club with a strong local identity and their teams play attractive rugby with home grown talent.
In recent seasons the two clubs have followed a similar orbit with Bide always having the slight edge. They were promoted from the Cornwall and Devon league as champions with the Saints going up with them as runners-up.
Last season Bideford finished third with the Saints just behind them in fourth place. Despite the obvious disappointment the welcome afforded to the Saints' players and supporters before, during and after the game was excellent.
The victory saw the Saints go three points clear of Bideford as the league enters the final straight. Bideford will be looking to exploit any slip up from the Saints who have one game in hand on their title rivals.
That comes this Saturday when the Saints travel to Somerset to take on Wellington in what will be another tough encounter.