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Review of the Season – 2018/19

By Jeremy Tyrrell

P30 W 16 D1 L13 PF 916 PA 854 (Photo: Andy Ince winning his 100th cap against Guildford)

The main change during the off season saw Bedford Athletic benefitting from one of the new RFU Artificial Grass Pitches, officially opened by Peter Wheeler prior to the match against Chingford. Promotion meant a level transfer to the London & South East Premier League and the 2018-19 season began at Sutton & Epsom. Bedford Athletic led 10-7 at half time before the start of the second period saw them concede four tries and slump to a 49-25 defeat. Honours were nearly even in the second game when Bedford Athletic shared 8 tries with Tring but the team still lost 26-24. A toe to toe encounter emerged at league leaders Wimbledon when Bedford Athletic trailed 24-20 until the final five minutes before succumbing 36-20 to the side recently relegated from National 2 South. This suggested good foundations had been laid but this was questioned with two home defeats in succession against fellow promoted sides CS Stags and Chingford. These were a set back and raised the question as to whether the side had the composure for must win games. This was most evident against Chingford where a consistent display over 80 minutes would have brought victory, but a malfunctioning lineout meant the side trailed 21-7 at half time and 29-22 at the end. A depressing 50-0 defeat at Dorking followed with a host of injuries and unavailabilities. After six games Bedford Athletic were second bottom with three bonus points, eleven points from safety having produced some good spells but insufficient continuity over 80 minutes. The expected attritional nature of Level 5 rugby meant Liam Walsh, Ryan Taylor, Nick Thomas, Andy Ince, Josh Cassell and Harry Sawford-Smith were now side-lined from the previous season’s title winning side.

The first win of the season came in a 32-28 victory against Sidcup. It was a match in which Bedford Athletic took their chances with Ben Middleton finishing off a Rob Watkins lineout steal and a mazy run by Archie Duncan ending in a try for Harry Sawford-Smith before half time. This laid the platform for Jake Foster to win the match from a Sawford-Smith break with five minutes to go. A heavy defeat at Hertford followed but this in turn led to a comfortable home win by 35 points to 22 against Tunbridge Wells as some of the earlier injury concerns began to ease. A critical away match at bottom of the table Shelford saw the side build a 29-10 lead through tries by Stephen Woodhead, Smith, Sawford-Smith, Watkins and Robbie Locke before they held off a late fight back to win 29-22. An 18-17 victory at home to second place Westcliff indicated that the side had finally reached the level required in this league as Steve Smith dominated the game and sealed victory with a penalty in the final five minutes. Two bonus points were gained in a 35-29 defeat at Guildford but given that half a dozen or so chances were missed it could have been more. Brentwood were allowed to build a 17-0 lead in the final home game of the year but this was hauled back until a last minute David Simpson try sealed an 18-17 victory. At the halfway point of the season the side had climbed to 12th, still in the relegation places having amassed 28 points, but only on points difference and with five wins in seven matches were on an upward charge. The last league game of the year saw a bonus point for four tries achieved in horrendous conditions at Tring in a 44-22 defeat and the last game of the year saw a 61-7 Bedfordshire Cup win away to Bedford Swifts.

January is always a big month with a full run of games in poor conditions. A narrow home defeat to Wimbledon (still leading the league) was followed by a comprehensive away defeat at CS Stags notable for the fact the referee awarded no penalties to the Ath side. A crucial trip to fellow bottom three side Chingford followed. It was a game where Bedford Athletic led for all but five minutes and nearly lost. A Josh Cassell hat trick saw the side ahead 32-18 on the hour mark but this soon became 32-23. In the final minutes Chingford scored a converted try and had a long distance penalty with the last kick of the game to win. The kick fell short and the win moved Bedford Athletic out of the bottom three for the first time in the season.

The last game in January was a remarkable affair at Putnoe Wood. The side trailed Dorking by 38 points to 19 with half an hour to play and then ran in five unanswered tries to triumph by 50 points to 38. The movement up the table continued into February and suddenly the team began to look less of a side struggling against relegation and more of a seasoned competitor at this level. They never trailed at Sidcup eventually running out 30-17 winners and at home to Hertford led throughout, with the exception of an early try, extending the lead to 26-7 before closing the game out 29-26. Leo Mortimer came to the fore in these matches kicking 15 and 19 points respectively allowing the side to build scoreboard pressure (with his brother James a long term injury he went on to be top scorer for the season with 190). He was ably assisted by the subtle intelligence of Steve Smith at inside centre, the roving presence of captain Rob Watkins in the back row and the raw power of Nick Thomas in the pack who all emerged as key leaders of a side who had by now moved into eighth place, eleven points clear of relegation and with nine wins in the previous 14 matches eyeing a finish in the top half of the table.

February ended with a walk over against Stockwood Park in the Bedfordshire Cup Semi Final before the side moved into March with contrasting matches at Tunbridge Wells and at home to Shelford. A dramatic game at Tunbridge Wells saw tries in the 75th, 78th and 80th minutes secure an unlikely 31-all draw whilst at home to bottom side Shelford the Bedford Athletic back line cut loose with ten tries in a 54-19 win. There was a hat trick for Stephen Woodhead, two tries apiece for Josh Cassell and Harry Sawford-Smith and one for Charlie Darlow, David Simpson and Steve Smith. The unbeaten run continued with a 47-26 success away to Oundle in an East Midlands Cup semi final and although after seven matches it finally ended in a 17-13 defeat at Westcliff this coincided with confirmation of league safety as with 57 points the side moved eighteen points clear of third from bottom Chingford with three matches to play.

The final three league games saw a 63-7 win at home to Guildford, including hat tricks for Woodhead and Sawford-Smith with Andy Ince celebrating 100 first XV appearances, a 54-34 win away to Brentwood and a narrow 38-31 home defeat to a Sutton & Epsom side that won the league as a result. Nevertheless a finish in the top half of the table in 6th place was secured.

The season concluded with Bedfordshire Cup wins at senior level 27-17 at Leighton Buzzard, and at colts level 34-23 against Ampthill, a Herts/Middlesex Merit Table Plate win for the seconds 58-13 against Harpenden and a 54-15 East Midlands Cup Final win against Peterborough. The key success though was keeping the side at regional premier league level.

Updated 20:35 - 28 Jul 2019 by Jeremy Tyrrell

Where next?

Bedford Athletic dominate Bedfordshire Finals Both the Colts and the Senior Cup won on the same evening.

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