Bognor regained some confidence with a 24-0 London two south west win at Weybridge as a hard-earned bonus-point win lifted them 13 points clear of the relegation zone and gave them much-needed breathing space. Gosport & Fareham, who visit Hampshire Avenue on Saturday, remain three points above them, having achieved an impressive victory over Effingham & Leatherhead.
Luke Rokotakala was recalled to his favourite centre berth while Nigel Mitchell and Karl Flinn started in place of the unavailable Jonny Lang and Tim Stickland. Pat Gibbs’ broken metatarsal meant an extended run at scrum-half for the versatile Rob Parry, with Dave Sweeney continuing at fly-half.
On a heavy pitch Bognor’s determination to start strongly was not helped by them conceding two penalties in the first two minutes, the first for driving up at a scrum and the second for playing the ball on the floor.
These basic errors were remedied by Bognor’s forwards as they set about winning the first two lineouts against the throw, a facet of play they’d dominated when the sides met in November. Flinn gave an early glimpse of his off-loading skills when he slipped the ball out of the tackle to the supporting George Castleton.
This signalled the start of a period of impressive pressure from the visitors with skipper Lee Balchin featuring twice in one handling move.
Parry, too, was beginning to make his presence felt and, shortly after missing a 35m penalty, the Welshman linked with Flinn. The burly No8 revelled in the inside pass and went clean through for the opening try.
Bognor’s loyal supporters had to wait just five minutes for the next try and it was a beauty, involving forwards and backs. Rokotakala, Mitchell and Stuart Pearce featured before the ball was finally worked to Nathan Archer. There was still plenty to do but the winger turned on the gas and flew over in the corner to put his side 12 points ahead.
But Bognor relaxed and allowed the passionate Vandals pack back into it.
More penalties were conceded and the home side grew in confidence. Bognor were under pressure on their own line, exacerbated when Flinn received a yellow card for handling in the red zone.
One massive hit from Lee Thompson, however, resulted in a turnover and a relieving penalty.
The second half began with Vandals again on the front foot and Bognor, still a man short, defending their line. Some great tackling from Dave Sweeney, Dan Harding and man-of-the-match Nigel Mitchell kept the visitors out.
After ten minutes Bognor got their hands on the ball and Parry cleared his line. The visitors, back to XV, worked their way deep into Vandals’ territory.
Castleton beat four players in a storming run and looked certain to score, only to see the ball knocked from his grasp a metre from the line.
The visitors kept up the pressure and a heel against the head was followed by Joe Burns being held up over the line. Finally the home defence cracked and Balchin scored Bognor’s third try.
It was credit to Vandals, whose difficult week had included the sacking of their coach, that they hit back and pressurised the visitors deep inside their 22. Bognor’s tacklers, led by Rokotakala, did their job to set up a last push for the all-important bonus point.
Shane Stevens, who’d been kicking his heels on the bench for the best part of an hour, was desperate to get his hands on the ball and use his pace. With time running out, his opportunity arrived.
A five-man handling move saw the ball end up in the winger’s hands on the halfway line and, with a running style resembling that of a startled ostrich, he rounded the cover defence to score a great bonus-point try.
Bognor need to raise their game further if they’re to beat Gosport & Fareham on Saturday (2.30pm).
BOGNOR: Pearce, Archer, Rokotakala, Castleton, Burgess, Sweeney, Parry, Morgan, Burns, Broome, Harding, Thompson, Mitchell, Balchin, Flinn. Reps: Greenslade, Dove, Stevens.