Chichester’s long, proud winning run at Oaklands Park is over – but only after an epic battle.
They knew it would be tough against Old Elthamians and it was as they lost 13-8, their first London one south defeat of the season.
The home crowd was one of the biggest of the season and they were entertained by a pulsating game between two good sides, with the Blues almost snatching the victory they probably deserved.
Phil Dickin’s good form saw him start at No12 and Eddie Armah, who had just become a father for the first time, was back on the wing for the first time this season.
Chichester started with a bang pinning the whites deep into their own half with big tackles and the forwards driving over the gain line.
Elthamians had a big pack with a weighty front row but the Blues made the first inroads with a clean strike against the head from hooker Rob Lawrence. The Blues’ backs were looking threatening with Knowles marshalling his troops well and Deed and Adams attacking well.
But Chichester failed to execute near to the try line, with desperate defending from Elthamians meaning Chichester got no more than a single penalty from their pressure.
The Whites were very shrewd in killing attacking ball.
Knowles converted the three points on offer but it was a paltry return and in a rare excursion into blue territory, Elthamians’ 15 slotted three points for holding on.
Things started to turn against the home side with a very serious injury to Dickin, taken from the field by ambulance. His shoulder dislocation looks to be season-ending, possibly worse.
This disrupted the Blues and they suffered a very harsh yellow. Yet again the Whites came in from the side as the Blues pushed deep into the Es 22 and prop Nick Shopland wrestled the culprit to the ground - no warning, no previous, just straight yellow.
Knowles struck a drop-goal attempt only to see it hit the bar and bounce away.
Old Es started to get on top with the man advantage and as the half ticked beyond 50 minutes a second yellow followed as a clever play saw an Old Es attacker run into big Phil Veltom from a quick penalty.
The home side, under huge pressure, hung on to be restored to 14 as the first half ended 3-3.
With a huge effort, the Blues repelled the white attacks with the away No12 causing major problems when he wasn’t throwing himself to the floor looking for more cards.
Back to 15, the Blues looked to get back on top but Elthamians were playing with confidence. The Blues defence scrambled well and the outstanding Ben Polhill covered every blade to cut down the danger.
With pressure starting to tell, another penalty gave the visitors a 6-3 lead.
Another injury saw Taggart leave the field for Chichester with 25 minutes to go. Immediately a crucial decision went against Armah.
First to the tackle with excellent body position, he looked to create the turnover but the penalty was given against. A powerful drive saw Es go over among a pile of bodies and it was 13-3.
The Blues upped the tempo with Billy Toone going on several lightning breaks. The forwards started to get on top with muscular drives, resulting in an excellent score for Lawrence.
A missed conversion meant it was 13-8 with ten minutes left.
The tempo was fever pitch with the Whites looking dangerous.
Barlow, Polhill and Toone were giving absolutely everything as Knowles nudged Chichester deep into white territory. In wave upon wave of attacks, Es defended as if their lives depended on it. Two close-in attacks seemed to have breached the line but were held up.
With a minute to go, an another energy-sapping drive took play to inches from the Es line. Moses Kasujja dipped close in and hit the line and the players and fans were ecstatic for a try and probable conversion would give them a Titanic win.
But the ref had other ideas and another pile of bodies saw the try turned down. A few seconds later it was all over. A number of Blues players collapsed to the ground, such was the effort to retain their unbeaten status.
Men of the match were Billy Toone and Ben Polhill.
Director of rugby Paul Colley said: “It was an unbelievably tense game of rugby with both sides giving everything. I can’t fault my guys’ effort – three or four were absolutely immense. We can improve and will have to if we are to maintain our excellent start.”
Head coach Rich Issac said: “In a very tight game the margin for error is small and sometimes the critical decisions go against you.”
CHICHESTER: Shopland, Lawrence, Veltom, Barlow, Taggart, Goldie, Polhill, Kasujja, Toone, Armah, Dickin, Deed, Golds, Adams. Reps: Wheeler, O’Callaghan, Pearham.