Chichester overcame Brighton 22-7 in a tough uncompromising Sussex Cup semi-final at Oaklands Park to reach only the fourth county cup final in their history.
The Blues welcomed Brighton to town knowing two Twickenham finals in recent seasons highlighted the visitors – also known as the Blues – knew how to get over the line in one-off cup rugby. Although the home side are going well at London one level, Brighton are a league below and fancied their chances.
With a large crowd present, Chichester showed three changes in the backs, Jack Smallman starting at No10 and Ross Fairbairn at 13 in place of Rich Adams and Tom Polhill. Ben Robson got his first start for a while on the wing with Eddie Armah on the bench.
Chichester, in their change strip of light blue, started at a cracking pace and immediately had Brighton under pressure, smashing the catcher back and forcing them deep into their own territory.
The Brighton scrum-half desperately tried to scramble the ball into touch, knocking on inches from his own line.
Phil Veltom sized on the loose ball to power over for what looked a good try – but the ref called play back for a Chichester scrum for the knock-on.
This good fortune galvanised the away side as their pack fought furiously for any loose ball. At the scrum the light blues had the edge but Brighton’s Sam Hutton used his size and power to hang on, the duel between him and Veltom one of several great battles.
For the next 25 minutes honours were fairly even and though the hosts held territorial advantage they could not fashion a clear chance. Brighton showed glimpses of attacking threat in the backs but Smallman, Moses Kasujja and Nick Fairbairn all tackled firmly.
On the half-hour, Chichester launched a series of attacks from well-taken lineouts from Barlow and Blount, with Polhill and Johnson recycling quick ball for Billy Toone to feed the powerful Scott Barlow who smashed over for the first score. Smallman converted and it was 7-0. Chichester swarmed into Vultures’ Corner, keeping the visitors pinned in their own 22 for long periods.
The pressure told as Chichester drove the creaking blue eight back over their line for hooker Rob Lawrence to emerge with the ball. The conversion was missed.
With seconds of the half remaining, Brighton full-back Finch went on a mesmerising run leaving three tacklers in his wake, but back-row duo Johnson and Polhill covered brilliantly to snuff out the danger and Smallman showed great heart to get back and make the cover tackle in the corner.
At the interval, the coaches were far from happy with the performance and Chichester knew they needed to step up to the level of recent weeks. They started the second half strongly – the visiting pack were under pressure as the Chichester pack powered forward.
Jon Lindsay, really starting to recover his form of two seasons ago following a long injury lay-off, muscled over – another conversion was missed but it was 17-0. Chichester’s excellent front-foot ball was let down by poor decisions in turning down overlaps and delaying the pass.
From one error, a pass went to ground leaving the Chichester attacking line flat-footed. Brighton winger Court picked up the spilled ball and from deep in his own half he hared towards the home line.
Two weak tackles gave the winger space and to be fair he finished superbly to go under the posts. Suddenly it was 17-7.
However Chichester have shown this season they are resilient and once again upped the pace. Several players had to be replaced because of injury but the replacements all added energy.
Chichester pinned the away side back near their own line and Lawrence again got over the line. A missed conversion meant the score was 22-7.
The game finished with the home forwards pounding away for what looked a well-worked fourth try – only for the ref to signal the ball being held up.
Chichester director of rugby Paul Colley said: “In cup rugby, it’s about winning – and we did that with our good form of recent months. Brighton were a tenacious team who played with a great deal of pride and passion.
“We didn’t play at our best and we know we are going to have to execute a lot better than that in the final. Ben Polhill and Jack Smallman exemplified the team spirit, however, cover tackling constantly and putting their bodies on the line.”
Coach Richard Isaac said: “We’re through to the final, which is great, but now we have to turn our attention back to the high intensity of the league. Two games to go and we’re still in the running for the play-offs.”
On Saturday Chichester host Chobham (3pm). All support is welcome.
The Sussex Cup final takes place at Brighton RFC on Saturday, May 7, against a strong-looking East Grinstead outfit.
CHICHESTER: Shopland, Lawrence, Veltom, Bount, Barlow, Johnson, Polhill, Lindsay, Toone, Smallman, Robson, Kasujja, Fairbairn, Todd, Golds. Reps: Pszczonka, Davies, Chappell, Ferguson, McCluskey, Renwick, Armah.