IT was “probably the biggest game most of the players have ever played in the green and gold of the Stags,” said Huntingdon & District head coach Damian Wales after watching his side beat promotion rivals Dunstablians 23-20 in Bedfordshire on Saturday.
“We knew this would be a thriller and the winner wouldn’t be known until the final whistle,” he said – and he wasn’t wrong!
It was a pulsating match which went right down to the wire, with the home side controlling much of the early territory and possession.
It didn’t take long for Dunstablians to register their first converted try but the Stags reduced the gap with a penalty goal from Dan Malem.
Dunstablians responded straight away with a long-range penalty of their own and Stags levelled the game on the 20-minute mark through Ali Dunsdon, who was on the end of a sweeping move that Wales described as “one of the best rugby tries we have scored all season.”
With half-time looming, Dunstablians again got their noses in front with a second try, which was again converted, for a 17-10 lead.
Stags shaved the home side’s lead to one point with two Dan Malem penalties, but then a long-range score from the Dunstablians’ kicker restored their lead to four points.
However, Huntingdon continued to pressure the Dunstablians line with the defence holding firm for the first half an hour of the second half.
The breakthrough, and ultimately winning try, came from a catch-and-creep lineout move, with Rory Parker touching the ball down.
Malem’s conversion from out wide proved crucial as it pushed Stags’ lead out to three points and meant that if Dunstablians were going to win the game in the final 10 minutes they would need to breach their opponents’ rejuvenated defence to score a try.
With time almost up, the home side were awarded a penalty on the half-way line. The referee allowed them to kick for touch and signalled that this would be the last play of the game, setting up a grandstand finish.
Dunstablians maintained possession for three further minutes, going through at least 20 phases, as they crept forward towards to the Huntingdon line.
With the defence looking stretched, the home side had the opportunity to win it when a Dunstablian winger raced for the corner, but the cover defence arrived in the nick of time and forced a mistake as he tried to dot it down.
“These are the games that players remember, hard fought battles between two good teams, so I am hoping that we will be remembering this one for the right reasons,” said Wales.
“Yes, we made mistakes, conceded a couple of soft tries, but we also showed fantastic spirit to wear them down and get our noses in front and just hold on.
“Big players step up in big games and ultimately that was what got us over the line today.”
Huntingdon, six points clear at the top of the Midlands Two East South table, will now make the shorter trip to Wellingborough on Saturday.
Midlands Two East South: Bugbrooke 25-0 Biggleswade, Dunstablians 20-23 Huntingdon & District, Leighton Buzzard 67-5, Oadby Wyggestonians, Northampton BBOB 10-13 Market Harborough, Vipers 13-22 Northampton Old Scouts, Wellingborough 15-22 Lutterworth.