Sutton & Epsom 23-29 Tonbridge Juddians
After the events at Southend a week earlier, a visit from the almost unbeatable league leaders was not calculated to fill the heart with joy. Yet after an astonishing afternoon at Rugby Lane, the crowd stayed to cheer the Black & Whites to the echo. Because of injuries and other absences, Sutton fielded a makeshift side which included Barnie Cowie at hooker, who has just two appearances as replacement to his name; Lewis McCormack, who has never before won a 1st XV league jersey; and the indomitable lock Ian White, who last played a year ago, almost to the day.
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And with the enforced absence of James Faaatuatu, Ian Knott was pressed into service at centre for the first time in his life. He performed so well in this unaccustomed position that, in partnership with Andy Matthews, he was even nominated Man of the Match. But what was really inspiring was that every man in the squad rallied to the clarion call leadership of skipper James Caddy and put their bodies on the line. At this stage we should mention that James Faaatuatu, who left the field at Southend with concussion, has not responded to treatment as quickly as hoped and will not play again this season. Beyond that we cannot speculate, but each and every one of us wishes the tireless and mercurial Fats the speediest of returns to good health.
The Sutton team may have been a thing of shreds and patches, but they soon disabused the TJs of a comfortable walk in the park. with a blend of focus and fire, Sutton were unrecognisable from the side which capitulated at Southend. And the crowd didn’t have to wait long for the first frisson of excitement. Many were still strolling to the pitch when a roar proclaimed that Karen Ghumra had pounced for the game’s first try almost immediately after kick-off. Steve Munford’s 7.5 second try which ousted Richmond from the Surrey Cup at a floodlit Rugby Lane so many years ago remains in the record book, but reliable estimates timed Kyren’s try at approximately 14 seconds which certainly sets a new league mark. And that set the tone for an afternoon of passionate rugby.
The TJs, it must be said, are not league leaders for nothing, as their record of 23 victories and a solitary defeat clearly shows. And with their speed about the park, focused work in the tight, constant support of the man in possession and immaculate long-range touch-finders, they crossed twice in each half to secure their umpteenth bonus point of the season and preserve their five-point advantage at the head of the table. But Sutton refused to lie down. Although not helped by some quixotic interpretations of the offside law, they snapped away at the heels and were only 13-15 adrift at the break.
When Tonbridge extended their lead to 29-13 midway through the second period, some wise old heads wanted to avert their gaze, but on this occasion the Black & Whites somehow found a new gear. First, Kyren Ghumra, who was on fire all afternoon, suddenly found himself in space and duly sprinted head on to the posts. Steve Munford added the extras and then, with the last kick of the match, kicked the penalty goal which earned Sutton an invaluable and richly deserved bonus point. As one eminent member observed, that point was a ‘golden nugget’. How true – and that became clear within the hour when we learned that Southend had trumped Hertford by a single point and that Guildford had shaded Chichester in a high-scoring game in Sussex. All of this means that Sutton’s destiny remains very much in its own hands. Six points from next week’s visit to Westcliff and at home to Amersham & Chiltern a fortnight later will guarantee National League status at Rugby Lane next season. And if the side plays with the same crackling spirit as it displayed against Tonbridge, that goal will certainly be achieved.