THIS Clash of the Titans - aka Chichester’s second-v-first clash with East Grinstead in London one south - lived up to expectations and had the large Oaklands Park crowd literally on their toes with excitement.
After being outplayed in the first half when Chichester scored three tries, the Gs fought back to win by three tries, one conversion and four penalties to the three home tries.
Remarkably and deservedly, Blues were leading their rivals 15-9 at half-time and had Gs rocking. The biggest upset of the season looked on the cards but Gs showed their class and high level of fitness to score 20 second-half points - with two of the tries in the last ten minutes.
Congratulations to them on winning automatic promotion to National three south. They have been the outstanding team and Chichester did very well to deny them a bonus point. Only Wimbledon had managed that before.
The Blues slip to third place behind Basingstoke but their Hampshire rivals for the runners-up spot and a promotion play-off have to play at East Grinstead in their last match.
The pitch had been cleared of surface water on one side and was in reasonable condition for running rugby. Mark Giddings came in at hooker, Toby Golds on the right wing and Jon Lindsay at lock forward for the first time since his bad injury in the first game.
The touchline was packed with both sets of supporters as Gs went on to the scoreboard, fly half Meakin slotting an easy penalty after one minute. Their backs tried a first expansive move but it ended in a knock-on.
Chichester began their attacks and Richard Adams sent Golds on a blindside run which took them close before a similar knock-on.
The forwards had success with the driving maul and the first scrums were even.
Inside centre Bentall tried a break but was tackled hard, Golds kicked a long touch and when the ball was spun out Bentall and Sam Renwick threatened again. Moses Kasujja broke out from the back row and it was carried on by Giddings, Gs going offside.
Richard Adams’ penalty struck the far upright, Chi piled in to win the ball and Bentall charged to the line. Although tackled he offloaded with a flick pass to Kasujja and the No8 crashed over. The conversion was missed.
After two fine kicks by Billy Toone and Adams, the Chi backs ran the ball to the right and Gs had to make two try-saving tackles. Toone retrieved the ball and quick hands found Bentall to power over. The conversion was missed from wide.
The Chi pack continued to gain territory with central mauls and rucks. Chris Johnson had a good run and out on the left wing Tom Jackson evaded two tackles before being forced out.
Gs revived and advancing to the Chi 22 they whipped the ball lightning fast across the backs with Chi scrambling to cope with an overlap. They tried again but the winger was stopped by a firm tackle fom full-back Tim Cook.
Pressure mounted with pick and go from rucks and Bentall was sinbinned after robbing the ball near the posts. Meakin obliged with another easy penalty.
From the dropout Gs reacted too slowly and lost possession to onrushing Blues. A terrific drive followed and Johnson was under the bodies to score the third try. Sadly, the conversion was just wide.
Gs hit back with a sweeping attack which Chi defended strongly but were finally penalised for holding on in a ruck. A third straightforward kick for Meakin made it 15-9 at the break.
The answer came quickly with a Gs counter-attack from their own half. Quick ball to outside centre Downey, a swerve and sidestep and he was through with Golds to beat. He was well tackled around the legs but a lovely offload found Meakin looping round the outside to run in and score from 20 metres. He converted and Chi went behind for the first time.
A minute later, Chichester conceded a penalty for not rolling away and it became 19-15.
Blues surged back with Toone, Jackson and Renwick handling as the attack went left but a second-phase kick over the top by Adams was marked and cleared. Golds had to make another solid tackle to halt the speedy full-back Betty as he sprinted towards the line from deep.
The Chi pack kept trying to blast through with Phil Veltom and Ash Wheeler using their strength but when Giddings had to leave the field in a groggy state, replaced by Nick Shopland, and Lindsay gave way to Phil Dickin, Gs upped their tempo.
They won control of the lineout and the stokers in their boiler room worked up a head of steam and their very big ball carriers made good ground.
Chi continued to defend stoutly and it was nip and tuck for ten minutes. The pressure built and with pick and go Gs moved steadily to five metres out before the backs had a breathtaking bout of passing which they spoilt with a knock-on.
Chi had a last attacking sequence when Kasujja broke free and with a penalty to touch and slick handling another try and bonus point was possible. But after two high kicks into the Gs 22, Gs cleared with a penalty kick.
They benefitted from their lineout superiority and their maul ploughed forward. A tackle was missed on their No8 and the ball spun out to Downey, who cut inside expertly to score an excellent try near the left corner. It was 24-15 with ten minutes left.
A good tackle by Renwick and a penalty took Chi to the right corner with a chance of a fourth-try bonus point plus a losing bonus point. But there was great disappointment for Chi supporters when the lineout was lost again to Gs’ outstanding jumper.
In the last minute, Gs capped a fine second half with a fast move giving centre Keyworth space to beat a tired but gallant defence at the right corner. The final whistle blew and both teams left the field to warm applause, Gs popping their celebration champagne.
Chi had lost their unbeaten home record of 11 straight wins to a team who have won 23 consecutive matches. And they gave the new champions their hardest contest.
Head coach Rob Lawrence said: “I was so proud of our players, who had prepared well, showed great team spirit and gave everything they had. I could not have asked for more and what a cracking game it was!”
The Blues’ next game is on April 6 at Trojans. All support is welcome as the race to be runners-up continues.
CHICHESTER: Wheeler, Giddings, Veltom, Blount, Lindsay, Johnson, Polhill, Kasujja, Toone, Adams, Jackson, Bentall, Renwick, Golds, Cook, Shopland, Dickin, Laflin.