A stunning second-half display which yielded 21 unanswered points kept St Austell’s title challenge very much on course, writes Gareth Davies.
However, for the Thorns, by virtue of this defeat, their quest for South West (One) West’s top spot could have been dented beyond repair. And despite the Gloucestershire outfit admitting at full time that they aren’t prepared to throw in the towel quite yet, the destiny of the league title would appear to be heading for either St Austell or Chew Valley.
The two front runners meet at Tregorrick Park on April 2 and although it will be billed as a championship shoot-out, Saints, crucially, have a game in hand over Chew meaning that at this stage, with four games left, the outcome of 2021-22 is in the hands of Kyle Marriott and his side.
It could have been so much different had Saints not dug deep and produced arguably their most complete 40-minute performance of the season to see of Thornbury.
In atrocious conditions, the score line was locked at 8-8 at the mid-way point with both sides scoring a single try and penalty – all Saints’ points came from Matt Shepherd.
If the game could have been considered tighter than a drum at this point, the second stanza was very much one-way traffic with Saints forcing Thornbury to keep their collective powder dry with a powerful defensive performance.
Scores from Marriott, stand-in skipper Andy Inch and evergreen replacement prop Hugh Noott, with Shepherd adding three conversions sealed victory and an all-important bonus point too.
Before a huge crowd enjoyed an enthralling clash, Saints were dealt a blow with the hosts forced to make a late change in the pack. Captain Miles Davey had to rule himself out with Brandon Haque coming into the front row. This prompted a slight front-row reshuffle with Charlie Nicholson shifting from prop to the hooking role.
It was a new back row for Saints too as Cam Taylor and Rory Jago dropped out with their places taken by a fit again Inch and Adam Kellow.
Behind the scrum, Saints made a bold call and thrust teenager Archie Bees in at fly-half with Shepherd reverting to full-back. Cav Boyer moved from 15 to the right-wing to counter the absence of Fraser Nottle.
With heavy rain and gusty winds greeting the two sides on kick-off, Saints had the first chance of proceedings when Ben Plummer intercepted a long Thornbury pass inside his own quarter. Plummer sprinted clear but was cut down short before Saints were awarded a penalty. Shepherd kicked to the corner but Thornbury did well to repel a strong line-out drive.
Shortly after, the Thorns, who arrived in Cornwall a day before the game to aid with their preparations, were dealt a blow when captain Sam Evans was forced off with concussion. This change seemed to disrupt the men from Rockhampton Hill and after getting on the wrong side of the official again, Shepherd called for the tee and kicked St Austell into a 3-0 lead.
But Thornbury recovered well to falling behind and responded in kind when Jack Pinker matched Shepherd’s earlier effort. And straight from the restart, the game was held up while visiting centre Jake Wood received treatment after he was hit – legally – by an absolute bell-ringer from Adam Kellow.
This period of injury time would prove crucial for the visitors later in the half although for most of the opening stanza, the game was scrappy with neither side able to gain a foothold.
That appeared to change as the interval approached when Jack Pickles was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on. Playing a man light, the imperious Shepherd made Pickles pay when he ran a stunning line close to the Thornbury whitewash and subsequently slid over for the game’s first try.
Just as they did to slipping behind earlier in the period, Thornbury came back at Saints hard and with the clock in the red, they pounded away at the home line and eventually the ball was shipped wide to Jake Goodridge and he crashed over.
At 8-8, Thornbury would have perhaps been the happier of the two sides when the second half began but the tone was perhaps set from the restart when the visitors spilt the ball and immediately Saints were on the front foot.
With Thornbury unable to get out of their own half and Saints’ set-piece firing on all cylinders, the hosts went ahead on 50 minutes when a scrum drove over the line and Marriott did the rest.
The momentum really shifted towards the home side as the hour mark approached when Inch capitalised on a sleepy Thornbury defence to tap quickly and power over from close-range and Shepherd converted.
At 22-8, Saints knew they were in the box seat and with Thornbury’s bench empty due to an injury that finished Chris Moseley’s afternoon early, it was just a case of seeing the game out while chasing that all-important bonus-point score.
As the game entered its final throws, Saints threw Noott into the fray and his added muscle in the scrum and breakdown proved crucial in making the victory a five-point haul.
Picking and going close to the Thornbury line, Saints’ big guns probed for a way through and it eventually came from Noott who burrowed his way past the would-be visiting defence under the sticks.
Thornbury were visibly deflated from that moment on as they knew their title chances were evaporating while for Saints, they march on in their quest for silverware.
Saints: Shepherd, Boyer, Ewudzi, Plummer, Welland, Bees, Boyce; Job, Haque, Nicholson, Knight, Vian, Kellow, Inch, Marriott. Replacements: Noott, Morley, D Tyrrell.
Tries: Shepherd, Marriott, Inch, Noott; Cons: Shepherd (3); Pen; Shepherd.
Thornbury: Pickles, Priday, Perrett, Wood, Richards, Pinker, Beese, Panting, Evans, Heaver, Constable, Moseley, Burley, Goodridge, Hussey. Replacements: Butcher, Maher, Gaston.
Try: Goodridge; Pen: Pinker.
[Featured image: Colin Bradbury / Cornwall Sports Media]