RUGBY: Just two points in it as St Andrews host league leaders on Saturday
Midlands 3 West (South)
Manor Park 6 Rugby St Andrews 38
Saints gained revenge for their early season narrow loss to obdurate Manor Park to maintain their bid for promotion.
The Nuneaton side have had a mixed season with good wins over top sides and are always difficult opponents on home ground with a set of robust forwards and a siege gun kicker at fly half.
It took Saints almost an hour to fully assert their superiority in the backs but, once in full flow, they ripped through a tiring defence for a five-try bonus-point win.
In many ways this was similar to their pre-Christmas game against Dunlop.
The opposition persisted with route one rugby, only to be met with a rock solid defence by the pack, which rarely allowed them to cross the gain line, or impressive line speed by the backs that frequently dumped their opposite numbers behind the gain line.
Even without three of their leading try scorers Saints were keen to play with width but tended to try and force the game, which led to unforced errors and a number of missed opportunities before the late blitz.
Manor Park landed a well struck penalty after just three minutes and added a second four minutes later.
Saints responded with some powerful driving from the pack before releasing their backs.
A poor final pass was knocked on with the line open but play was brought back for an earlier infringement and Ryan Taylor slotted the kick.
Strong running and better handling gave winger George Headley space to score in the corner.
Ryan Taylor signalled a return to his usual high standard of place kicking with a conversion into the wind. A couple of penalties and a yellow card to David Rudd on the half hour gave Manor Park a simple shot at goal.
Instead they opted for an attacking lineout, which Saints snaffled and cleared the danger to take a four-point lead into the break.
The Park always fancy their chances when playing down the slope and set up a series of rumbles towards their favourite corner.
Saints continually frustrated their efforts and were quite happy to counter from deep or use the strengthening wind to drive the home team back.
The introduction of Tom Oglethorpe after 50 minutes brought a new dimension to the attack and a reminder of how much Saints have missed the talented youngster this year. Either with ball in hand or by the boot he tormented the Park’s defenders and made a telling contribution to each of the four second-half tries.
The pack began to make inroads with some strong carries by Kyle Smith in particular, giving the threes good front foot ball.
Tom Helliwell cut an excellent line to score between the sticks but the Nuneaton side responded and hammered away at Saints line for several minutes. The cries of “hold” echoed across the Griff and Coton ground as wave after wave was repulsed.
A turnover saw Saints counter from in goal and work their way back upfield.
A neat move down the short side enabled Will Headley to wriggle through for the try that finally broke the stalemate.
Some intelligent kicking then caused all sorts of problems and, as pressure mounted, Tom Oglethorpe’s perfectly timed incursion from full back took him past the first line of defence before delivering the scoring pass to Ryan Sabin, who cantered round to score under the posts.
Ryan Taylor added his fourth conversion and a minute later capitalised on more confusion in the home defence to grab try number five and pass 100 points for the season.
Ryan Sabin’s conversion ended the game although there is some confusion about the final score on the RFU results site which does not include one of the conversions.
Saints have already been denied three points when the official forgot to record a penalty against Old Leams earlier in the season. In such a competitive league points difference may well be crucial.
As all the top five clubs recorded bonus-point wins, there are no changes in league positions. Saints remain joint second with Shipston on 41 points and just two points below leaders Old Coventrians, who travel to John Tomalin Way this week for a crunch fixture.
Saints won comfortably by 37-22 in the away game but the Coventry side have clearly improved and have not lost a league game since mid October.
With the other promotion candidates likely to win their games, whoever loses this tussle will probably drop two or three places in the pecking order, so the stakes are high.
Saints are hopeful that at least four key players will be returning, which creates what is known as a ‘high class selection problem’ after such a strong team performance against Manor Park.