Torquay Athletic 28 St Austell 17
LEAGUE leaders St Austell fell to a second successive defeat in an enthralling encounter at third-placed Torquay Athletic.
The home side dominated the first half but the Saints were on top after the break despite being down to 14 men for 20 second half minutes.
The Saints' coaches were left scratching their heads as the visitors only conceded four penalties in the second half to the Tics' nine.
Several of those were deliberate infringements to stop quick Saints ball and despite long lectures from the referee on three separate occasions the home side escaped further sanction.
The Tics weathered the Saints storm to grab two late scores to give the final score line a slightly flattering feel.
The Saints got off to a nervy start and a ball lost against the head in the very first scrum of the match caused panic in the visitors' defence.
Centre James Wood coolly slotted a 30-metre penalty to put the home side ahead with barely two minutes on the clock.
The Tics launched their big men to great affect and were starting to create big holes in the visitors' midfield.
The Saints were showing some uncharacteristic frailty in their first-up tackling and it was not long before flanker Ash Sharp burst through for a try converted by Wood.
It was not until the 25th minute that the visitors finally showed what they were capable of with a superb try by Alex Welland.
Quick line ball out was spread wide and after excellent work by centre James Earp and Ian Venner the ball was passed to the winger who cut through the home defence.
Matthew Shepherd's conversion ensured that the visitors were back in the game at 10-7 down.
The Tics continued to press hard but the Saints' had appeared to overcome their earlier defensive fragility.
With half-time approaching the visitors found themselves trapped in the corner and after a series of increasingly desperate five-metre scrums lock Jon Woodhead flopped over.
Wood's successful conversion was met with the half time whistle, the home side were now 17-7 ahead and the Saints had a second half mountain to climb.
The visitors attacked straight from the start immediately putting the Tics on the back foot. After several phases a sublime pass by skipper Andy Ashwin put Welland away in the corner for an unconverted try.
Saints' overzealous attempts to recover the ball from the restart led to a 35-metre penalty kick that Wood duly converted.
Minutes later came the first yellow card; Welland was left wrong footed following a neat side step by his opposite number Andy Gormley.
His instinctive attempt to bring the winger down was adjudged a trip and worthy of ten minutes in the bin. The Saints continued to dominate possession and with Welland back on the field they finally broke through.
An excellent interchange of passes between Venner and Shepherd allowed the mercurial scrum half to outstrip the defence to rein in the deficit to 20-17.
Shepherd could not convert the difficult kick although his cause was not helped by some unedifying cat calls from the home support.
The visitors' sensed blood and were now looking for the all-important fourth try. The Tics' were resolute in defence and despite two near misses the Cornishmen could not breach the defensive wall.
On 66 minutes the home side finally broke out of their half and from a line out catch and drive put all 15 men into the maul. The Saints were penalised for collapsing the drive and prop Peter Rowe was sent to the bin.
Despite this the visitors continued to lay siege in the home 22. With minutes remaining Venner looked to have scored only for play to be pulled back for a knock on.
The Tics then turned the tables when prop Russell Morris tore through the Saints' midfield to take play deep into their half.
The ball was worked to winger Joe Briggs to steal over an unconverted try. Insult was added to injury when Wood added a final penalty deep in added time to make the final score 28-17.
St Austell will reflect on the consequences of a poor first half display that allowed a rampant Tics to rack up the points.
A vastly improved second 40 saw them push their hosts close but being forced to chase the game always left them vulnerable to the counter attack.
The defeat means that the Saints' cushion over Bideford has now been whittled down to four points. With the North Devon side playing their game in hand next Saturday it means when the Saints return to league action in two weeks' time it will in all probability be in the unfamiliar position of second place.
That is for another day because Saints' attentions turn to the South West Counties Cup final and the visit on Saturday of Gloucestershire side Berry Hill to Tregorrick (2.30pm).