National League 1: Bishop's Stortford draw 18-18 at Tonbridge Juddians in first league game for 18 months
Bishop's Stortford came from behind in the last 10 minutes to draw 18-18 at promoted Tonbridge Juddians in their first match of the new National League 1 season, writes John Allanson.
The Silver Leys side, who led 10-5 at half time, scored two tries through Chris Smith and captain Sam Winter, and George Cullen kicked a conversion and two penalties.
It was Stortford's first league match in 18 months – since a 31-24 win at Rotherham – and the first competitive match for joint head coaches Marcus Cattell and Tom Coleman, who were appointed in May 2020. The game had an extra edge for TJs fans for their first ever game at level 3.
The home side soon established control at the scrums, but it was Stortford, with their line-out functioning extremely well on both their own and opposition throws, that enjoyed territorial advantage through the first 10 minutes. The flowing passing of their backs stretched the home defence repeatedly.
Eventually this pressure had to tell and quick ball to the left produced an overlap which Josh Stannard, looping round from the blindside wing, exploited to perfection to put fellow winger Chris Smith clear to run round for a try, converted by George Cullen after 11 minutes.
The visitors’ three-quarters continued to look threatening, but a combination of strong TJs defence and some soft Stortford turnovers prevented any further score until the 28th minute, when the home side finally managed to capitalise properly on their scrum control, breaking Stortford’s goal-line defence for an unconverted try.
Both sides missed penalty kicks before, with 36 minutes on the clock, a further offence by the home team, for failing to release at a tackle, was duly punished by Cullen. This took Stortford into the break with a 10-5 lead, but, turning to face a stiffish breeze, this was a far from comfortable margin, leaving the visitors ruing a couple of good scoring opportunities missed.
TJs started the second period strongly, dominating possession and territory, and they duly forced another penalty with 10 minutes of the half gone, which went to touch inside Stortford’s 22. A series of threatening forward drives was held out, but after three or four phases the ball was spun out for an unconverted try close to the touchline to level the scores.
Five minutes later, the benefit of the following wind was clearly demonstrated as the home side won a penalty for offside close to halfway and their full-back stepped up to plant the kick well over the crossbar to put his side into the lead, 13-10, for the first time in the game.
The scores were soon level again, though, as Stortford quickly moved into the opposition 22 and were awarded a penalty, as a maul driving towards the TJs line was collapsed, Cullen slotting the kick at goal.
Despite continued solid defending from Stortford, they came under increasing pressure as they failed to hold on for any significant periods of time onto increasingly scarce possession, as fortunes at the line-out swung in the home side’s favour.
Eventually, with little more than 10 minutes left, TJs ran back a poor defensive kick and made a rare clean break to set up a two-on-one in Stortford’s 22. They were unable to exploit the opportunity as cleanly as Stortford had in the first half, though, and allowed the scrambling defence to block the offload, requiring good fortune from the resultant loose ball bouncing back into their hands for one of their big forwards to force his way over for another unconverted try to lead 18-13.
The visitors bounced straight back onto the attack from the restart and almost immediately stretched the home defence to breaking point, with only a deliberate knock-on inside their 22 preventing a potentially scoring pass reaching its target.
The culprit was duly yellow-carded and from the resultant penalty Stortford were soon driving at the try line. With another penalty advantage going in their favour, they spun the ball quickly wide, where skipper Sam Winter used an overlap outside to dummy and crash over for a try. Cullen’s conversion, delayed for some time by a scuffle between the sides behind the posts, went narrowly wide. Aidan Burnett and a TJs prop were yellow-carded for their parts in the fracas, after intervention by the assistant referees.
Although down to 13 men at the finish, the home side ended very much on the front foot. They were, nevertheless, happy to settle for a draw from this extremely tight encounter, kicking the ball into touch to finish the game well inside the Stortford half.
In their first home match this Saturday (Sept 11) Stortford will host Plymouth Albion, who lost 37-8 at home to Rosslyn Park.
Stortford: Powell, Smith, Winter (c), J Ayrton, Stannard, Cullen, Bryan; Roberts, Rayment, Bridges, Carter, Lewis, Betteridge, Wallace, Burnett. Replacements: King, Brownhill, Peverelle, S Coleman, Swannack.
NATIONAL LEAGUE 1 RESULTS
- Birmingham Moseley 23 Darlington Mowden Park 22
- Blackheath 15 Cinderford 18
- Cambridge 28 Rams 34
- Chinnor 34 Sale 21
- Leeds Tykes 29 Taunton Titans 41
- Old Elthamians v Caldy cancelled
- Plymouth Albion 8 Rosslyn Park 37
- Tonbridge Juddians 18 Bishop's Stortford 18