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Billingham 25 Percy Park 29
JUST when Billingham seemed primed to confirm their right to a place in the top four of National Three North they discovered they are not quite there.
They have forged comfortably ahead as Teesside’s top team, but a lack of depth was exposed as their 25-8 half-time lead was overturned in an enthralling match.
Having wiped out an 8-7 deficit, Billingham romped clear with such style that there seemed no reason why they shouldn’t go on to reach 50 points.
But they were barely out of their own half after the interval as their rotational use of the bench backfired and they were overpowered up front.
They have a stronger pack than on their last brief visit to this division two years ago, but to keep progressing they have to bring on more young players.
That must have been the reason for taking off No 8 Mike Evans before half-time, but by the time he returned the game had turned irrevocably.
Percy Park had the stronger replacements, notably the powerful Phil Morse, whose introduction at full back allowed ex-Newcastle Falcons and Bath player Michael Stephenson to switch to the left wing.
Capped three times by England on a summer tour of North America, 32-year-old Stephenson’s appointment as player-coach helped resurgent Percy Park challenge at the top of Three North in the first half of the season.
However, a dropped high ball, a kick straight to touch and another kick charged down contributed to an unhappy first half for the full back at Billingham, whose own player-coach Chris Hyndman was much more inspirational.
It looked as though Stephenson had had enough when he limped off ten minutes into the second half with his side still trailing 25-8.
But he returned on the left wing and with his next touch squeezed in at the corner shortly after Billingham’s repeated transgressions under pressure earned a yellow card for hooker Dave Reay.
Fly half Ashley Smith, who had failed with three penalties, converted from the touchline and the renewed spring in Percy Park’s step immediately brought another converted try.
Wingers James Bird and Howard Stock combined in a powerful counter-attack and a clever pass by Stock sent flanker Jack Davidson over.
The gap was down to three points with 20 minutes left and although Billingham gamely tried to turn the tide again their most threatening attack was snuffed out by Stephenson craftily stealing the ball.
Percy Park capitalised on increasing scrum dominance and were not seriously troubled again. The winning score seemed inevitable, although it did come from long-range with Morse breaking down the middle before the ball was moved left for Bird to score.
Smith converted all three second half tries to atone for the penalty misses – one hit the bar – which had looked likely to help Billingham to victory.
As well as living up to their reputation for slick attacking, they had looked solid up front and defended tigerishly in the first half.
Good handling was supplemented by deft chips, which led to all three tries, the first coming after only a minute, helped by non-existent defence.
With skipper Joe Evans injured, brother Peter was at fly half with Craig Shepherd at full back and it was Shepherd who counter-attacked by easily re-gathering his own chip to send Peter Evans in from 25 metres.
A diagonal kick from Hyndman created the second try for Shepherd and after intense pressure, involving umpteen phases, Evans chipped through for his brother, Mike, to score.
The fly half added two conversions, a penalty and a drop goal for the 25-8 lead and when his opposite number hit the bar on the stroke of half-time it just didn’t look like being Percy Park’s day.
But they rallied impressively to hang on to fourth place.