Rugby: St Austell v Bideford December 18
ST AUSTELL squeezed home in another close encounter with Bideford in a game of 'three halves' at a windswept Tregorrick.
A serious elbow injury to Saints flanker Rob Jeffs forced an early end to the first half to allow the ambulance crew to go about their work.
Play resumed with the start of the second half and at the end of 40 minutes the teams switched ends to play the missing five first half minutes.
An ingenious solution by retiring referee Darren Curry to ensure fair use of the elements and one supported by both sides.
Victory enabled the Saints to overhaul Cleve to go top of the league, a wonderful Christmas present for the Tregorrick faithful.
The win also ensured the home side retained the Picture Challenge Trophy. Originally a humorous cartoon of a rugby player, the picture was 'borrowed' from the Bideford clubhouse by jubilant St Austell players as a memento of their first ever win there in March.
It has now been turned into the Picture Challenge Trophy and will be the prize on offer every time the teams meet in the future.
The close rivalry in recent seasons has helped drive both clubs on to achieve their highest ever standings in the league structure developing a close bond in the process.
Bide had first use of the ferocious South Westerly wind blowing the length of Tregorrick and soon made good use of fly half Ollie Wickett's howitzer boot.
A Saints' infringement on the halfway line was ruthlessly punished as the kick flew straight and true between the posts from 50m. Saints captain Matt Shepherd equalised from a more conservative 20m after Bide were penalised for not releasing.
A scorching run by full back Dan Pearce split the visitors' defence and it took an excellent last ditch tackle from his counterpart Chris Snell to prevent a try.
Bideford were now clocking up the penalties as the Saints exerted the pressure and in the 16th minute flanker John Mills was yellow carded for persistent offending.
That really should have been the signal for the home side to ratchet things up but they were left stunned when Bide scored two tries in three minutes.
Despite being down to seven forwards the Bide pack turned over a Saints' put-in to a scrum, Wickett's astute chip kick allowed winger Sam Olde to outstrip a wrong footed back line to touch down in the corner.
That was quickly followed by a missed tackle in midfield that enabled Olde to fly in from 40m for his second try.
Wickett's conversion put the visitors 15-3 ahead and there were now some very anxious expressions in the stands. Saints hit back on the half hour mark when good ball from a shortened line out allowed lock Steve Howorth to punch a hole through the gain line.
Quickly recycled ball was worked wide to Ashley Taylor and the winger showed good strength to score in the corner.
Saints were now in the ascendency but play was soon stopped when Rob Jeffs fell awkwardly and dislocated his elbow.
By the time play resumed for the second half conditions had worsened considerably with driving rain being swept across Tregorrick by blustery winds. Saints applied the early pressure and a Shepherd penalty reduced the deficit to 15-11.
The home side were finding the visitors determined in defence and could not turn the dominance into points.
Frustration in Saints ranks led to three successive penalties that allowed Bide to move play from one 22 to the other.
The Saints just managed to repel a rolling maul and were saved by a crossing infringement when it looked like Bide might score.
As the half moved into the final quarter the Cornishmen laid siege to the visitors' try line, but heroic defending meant then had to settle for another Shepherd penalty to close the gap to just a point.
Time looked to be ebbing away and it took an inspired switch by the coaching team to finally break the Bide resistance.
With a scrum on the 22 close to the touchline, fleet footed centre Darren Pellow was replaced by the more straight running Callum Wilson.
In a move off the training ground, scrum half Andy Ashwin released his back line and Wilson crashed through the Bide defence to score under the posts to put the Saints in front for the first time in the match.
Shepherd's conversion was quickly followed by a penalty to stretch the lead to 24-15 to the delight of the home crowd.
The roars at the 'final' whistle were cut short when the teams then swapped ends to play the missing five minutes.
In the 82nd minute Bide were awarded a penalty just inside the Saints half and up stepped Ollie Wickett to unleash another thumping 45m penalty to secure a well-deserved losing bonus for the visitors.
Man of the match was flu victim Andy Ashwin whose patient promptings and shrewd decision-making at scrum half kept the Saints on track despite atrocious conditions, a below par team performance and resolute Bide defence.
The Saints will now sit prettily at the top of the SW1 West tree over the Christmas period as the next game is not until the new year.
In a tough start to 2014, the Saints will travel to Somerset to take on Chard (2.30pm) on January 4.