Rugby: Tunbridge Wells survive play-off thriller to secure place among elite

Gary Jefferies

A WEEK before this game, Tunbridge Wells were not even in the play-off position. Now they can look forward to playing at their highest ever level, in National League Three South next season. 

Wells’ achievement was all the greater because they had gone up at the first attempt, thereby achieving back-to-back promotions following their unbeaten season in the previous league. So it was two outstanding campaigns on the bounce.

But it took a performance of nerve and character to prevail in a titanic and almost unbearably close battle that was only decided in extra time.

Charlie Harding came in at fly-half to replace the Frank Reynolds, who was having -trials for the England Counties Under-20s.

Playing against a strong breeze Wells soon conceded a penalty and then lost second row Owain Withers to a twisted knee.

Hayden Pope, on kicking duty in place of Reynolds, put Wells on the board with a well-struck penalty which was awarded after an infringement when Withers was injured.

Wells found the Chingford line speed giving them little room but they still scored a fine try after good hands on the right gave skipper Lee Campion the chance to stand up his opposite number and score in the corner. Pope’s conversion grazed the post and went wide.

But Wells were giving away a string of penalties, predominantly for offside, during the rest of the half.

On the half-hour the visitors conceded another simple penalty converted by the Chingford full-back, who a minute later used the breeze to slot one over from inside his half. 

That restored Chingford’s lead at 12-8, which remained the score until half-time. In his last game in charge, Matt Cook’s team talk was all about composure and patience.

SOUND DEFENCE Fionn McLoughlin tries to break free. PHOTO: Bruce Elliott

The first 20 minutes of the second half were characterised by a complete failure of the home lineout to function to their advantage. 

Wells enjoyed better territory with the breeze and Harding brought back memories of the Intermediate Cup final at Twickenham last year with a well-struck drop goal.

The game was now tense and tight with few openings for either side as the defences dominated. 

Wells continued to incur the displeasure of the referee and two penalties after the hour-mark from the unerring boot of the No 15 put the home side 18-11 up. 

The mood on the pitch had changed, though, with the ‘pick and drive’ being employed. It took the pack until the 72nd minute to get the break they were looking for as replacement Josh Crickmay launched himself through a forest of legs to get the touchdown. Pope converted to level the scores at 18-18.

With full-time close at hand, Harding and Pope used the breeze to kick to the corners. Pope nudged Wells further in front at 21-18 on 77 minutes after a scrum infringement. 

Yet a Wells handling error in midfield allowed Chingford to break away and they were awarded another penalty to level the scores at 21-21 in the final minute. Wells had conceded seven penalty kicks, all converted.

Extra time consisted of two ten-minute halves, and Wells got off to a flyer. Within a minute hooker Jake Thompson latched on to a passing movement 30 metres out to twist, turn and roll over the line. Pope slotted to make it 28-21.

DRIVING SEAT Jake Thompson scored a try in the first minute of extra time. PHOTO: Bruce Elliott

Chingford lost a flanker to a yellow card for an offence on Thompson as he scored. Wells were dominating and a rolling maul saw No 8 Nick Doherty propelled over the line for Wells’ fourth try.


Pope converted to open up a 14-point lead as the teams turned around, though Crickmay had been binned for a knockdown in midfield.

But Chingford were not finished yet and they charged into Wells. Four minutes into the second half of extra time they drove over the line for a converted try to go within one converted try of Wells’ tally.

Then it was Fionn McLoughlin’s turn to receive a yellow card and as extra time was coming to an end Chingford forced themselves over the line in the corner. 

But for once their full-back could not convert – though even if he had, Wells would still have been the victors on try count.

So Wells signed off at this level by edging a brilliant game and can now look forward to their first taste of National League rugby next season.

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