Bognor 25 Haywards Heath 24
Bognor kicked off the new year in style when they reached the semi-finals of the Sussex Trophy with a 25-24 home win over Haywards Heath, who are in fourth place in the league above.
They can now look forward to facing East Grinstead at home in a mouth-watering tie, with the two clubs in negotiations to find a suitable date.
Bognor were delighted to welcome back Pat Gibbs at scrum-half after a long absence from first-team rugby and were also pleased to see the returns of Luke Rokotakala and Chris Morgan, two regulars from last season.
Less welcome was the debilitating chest infection suffered by captain Lee Balchin, but his deputy Mike Page stepped up and had a great game.
Not having played for three weeks Bognor could have been forgiven had they started slowly, but training had gone well during the week and head coach Karl Flinn was quietly confident an upset was on the cards.
Two early turnovers by the home side reinforced Flinn’s optimism and the large crowd began to make their presence felt.
After eight minutes a quickly-taken tap penalty was taken on by the outstanding George Castleton, the end result of which was a penalty to Bognor just 20 metres out. Rob Parry made no mistake to put his side into an early lead.
Bognor’s forwards began to impose themselves on their opposite numbers, a trend that was to continue for the first 30 minutes. Gibbs made one of his trademark sniping runs down the right-hand touchline, with a classic chip thrown in for good measure.
Bognor were guilty of some indiscipline at the tackle area and referee Stuart Godwin awarded the visitors two 40m penalties in quick succession, both of which were missed by fly-half Ed Phillip.
Bognor’s front row of Armandus Morgan, Paul Mitchell and Graham Broome began to dominate at the set scrums and, without the benefit of a platform from which to work, the visitors were guilty of poor decision-making and basic handling errors.
After half an hour Page took the ball strongly into the Heath 22 and, when the ball came back, Parry kicked wide into the waiting arms of Nathan Archer. The youngster took his chance superbly and Bognor were 8-0 up.
When Heath finally woke up in first-half injury time, they did so with devastating effect. Stuart Pearce kept them at bay with a great tackle but the visitors’ pack flexed their muscles and drove over from a lineout ten metres out.
Phillip found his kicking boots to add the extra points and then, with just seconds left on the clock for Bognor to hang on to a half-time lead, the fly-half was involved in a second try. The Heath playmaker spotted that Morgan had been caught in a ruck and he put in a long diagonal kick for his right-winger Stu Charnley to gather and touch down.
In a matter of minutes Bognor had gone from eight points up to 14-8 down but the feeling at half-time was positive and the sense of self-belief was growing.
When Bognor were awarded a penalty ten metres out at the start of the second half Gibbs took a quick tap and dived over before the Heath defence had woken up. Parry hit an upright with the conversion but the home side were just one point behind and right back in it.
Joe Greenslade and Jonny Lang came on to add youth and fresh legs to the proceedings and both did themselves proud.
Phillip increased the lead briefly with his third successful kick after a Bognor forward was penalised for sealing off at a tackle but then Parry took the game by the scruff of the neck.
The Sussex fly-half, now fully recovered from a long-standing groin injury, revelled in the service provided by Gibbs and began to control the game. Time after time he drove Heath back to their own line with long, raking touchfinders but the killer blows were the four penalties he kicked to take the game away from Haywards Heath.
For long periods the visitors were unable to get their hands on the ball as the home forwards dominated the set-pieces and drove them back 20 and 30m at a time. The second row pairing of Lee Thompson and Steve Dove enjoyed a field day while Tim Stickland looked totally at home at blind-side flanker.
By the end of the match Heath looked as if they had run out of ideas, their injury-time try bringing them little consolation.
For Bognor it was a confidence-boosting win that will stand them in good stead for the second half of the league season.
On Saturday they travel to Effingham and Leatherhead, a side they beat narrowly at home back in September.
BOGNOR: C Morgan, Archer, Castleton, Pearce, Rokotakala, Parry, Gibbs, A Morgan, P Mitchell, Broome, Dove, Thompson, Stickland, N Mitchell, Page. Reps: Greenslade, Lang, Flinn, Balchin, Shergold, Smith, Burgess.