St Austell steal a march on Bideford in Western Counties title race
ST AUSTELL stole Bideford's year-long unbeaten home record and a trophy to mark the achievement.
But the biggest prize with which they left King George's Field on Saturday evening was the three-point lead they now hold in the Tribute Western Counties (west) table.
That, with a game in hand, should be enough to see them go on to claim the title and automatic promotion.
St Austell drove away with a framed cartoon pinched from the Bideford clubhouse and set their friendly rivals the challenge of reclaiming it when they meet in South West One next season.
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It seems Bideford will have to get there the hard way, through a play-off with the runners-up in Western Counties (north) – likely to be Barton Hill or Wells.
They did enough, particularly in defence, in a compelling match watched by a crowd of more than 300 to suggest that task should not be beyond them.
Bideford's main regret will be that Pat Sanders missed all five of his kicks at goal – worth 12 points.
There were mitigating factors for Sanders, who has proved a reliable stand-in for the injured Olly Wickett as kicker.
It must have been hard to plant his standing foot on a pitch that was more mud than grass and he had been unwell all week leading up to the game.
"He did well to get fit to get on the pitch," said coach Kevin Booth. "There is no blame culture. We are all accountable for the loss."
Most accountable was the performance of St Austell and outstanding displays by Matt Shepherd, the scrum half, and Adam Kellow, the blind-side flanker and captain.
Pilfering the picture may have been daylight robbery, but their victory was not.
They were the better side for all but the first and last ten minutes and, far from distracted by their run in the RFU Intermediate Cup, which has left them one game away from Twickenham, they seem inspired by it.
Two tries in eight minutes midway through the second half secured the win, taking them from an 11-10 half-time lead to 21-10.
Bideford's frantic defending was taking its toll as St Austell's forwards gained superiority at the set pieces.
When Bideford lost the ball at a 54th-minute lineout, the Saints attacked hard and, eventually, Shepherd slipped out a fine offload for Alex Welland to dive over in the left corner.
St Austell were dominant as lock Adam Pearce showed some nifty footwork to nearly make it over the line, then Paul Winterbottom was held up.
There was no stopping Pearce in the 62nd minute as he powered over after Shepherd had made a dart from a scrum.
Bideford had made the brighter start to the game with full back Adam Crouch's pace nearly taking him to a dream early try.
They were only delayed momentarily as a penalty was kicked to the corner and scrum half Chris Snell hooked on to the back of a catch and drive to score his tenth try of the season.
St Austell's response was impressive but they might have expected more than six points – from a dropped goal by Andy Ashwin and penalty from Shepherd – only to be met with stern resistance from Bideford.
It was against the run of play when the home side regained the lead in the 29th minute.
The ball squirted out of a scrum deep inside the St Austell 22 and Snell reacted quickly to charge down Shepherd's attempted clearance and dive on the loose ball.
Within four minutes, St Austell were back in front with flanker Winterbottom scoring from a catch and drive wide on the left.
They stretched their advantage with those two second-half tries before Bideford raised their game in the last ten minutes.
When Matt Dennis burrowed through a gap from a lineout drive, they were a converted try away from snatching victory.
Fleet-footed wing Sam Olde suddenly came into the game as Bideford looked for a moment of inspiration.
But with St Austell too canny to give him even a hint of a gap, the Chiefs' 21-try top scorer was unable to get into areas to really hurt the opposition.
It was Bideford who were hurting by the fifth minute of stoppage time as, with John Mock and James Starkey down injured, they were penalised at a ruck.
St Austell put the ball into touch to complete a potentially decisive victory and Bideford's first defeat at King George's Field since February 11, 2012.
"We don't look at records like that, we just look at one game at a time," said Booth.
"We are not downhearted. It was two of the top teams in the league in an absolute belter of a game for the spectators."