Bury St Edmunds 20
Just a foot separated them in the end, the foot of new signing Conan Osborne.
His valiant attempt at a last-gasp try almost came off for the Wolfpack, who went down to league leaders Taunton Titans by six points in a thriller of a game.
And head coach Ollie Smith has piled the praise on his players, who have ‘come a long way since that first match’.
Bury St Edmunds lost both first choice scrum halves within the first half an hour — both Harry Anderson-Brown and Luca Merolle taking blows to the head — to see Osborne enter the fray earlier than anticipated.
And his contributions, from the wing, almost led to the home side scoring a vital five points on the death.
But the touch judge correctly called the ball out of play, as Osborne’s foot touched the line, leading to the referee blowing the final whistle and ending the match with Bury agonisingly close — a converted try — away from the win.
It was a match that saw several unusual moments, including a replacement referee drafted in during the second half.
Match official Alexis Manly pulled up with leg pain and the touch judge stepped in.
Smith said: “The game did change when he stepped in, we didn’t seem to get the rub of the green at all.
“He made two or three decisions that seemed particularly harsh, and it can be the difference.
“It’s so frustrating for the players, they worked really hard. It was our first opportunity to show how far we have come and how good we can be.
“It was all about making a statement, which we did, it’s just a shame we couldn’t cap it off with the win.
“But we have tried to detach a little from the win or lose situation, it’s about our quality of play and improving.
“If we keep doing that, we will be winning games. And so we now need to back it up in our next match.
“We’ve made big improvements and that’s the message, to take a step forward and win a game.
“One of the biggest challenges at this level, however, is consistency and something I’m working hardest on, improving from week to week — so far, so good.”
The fired up home side had tormented the visitors, who had conceded two first half tries but the Titans did not panic and did enough in the second half to earn victory.
A pulsating game sprung into life after just 90 seconds. Chris Lord came in off his wing to take Honey’s pass and race 40 metres for the score.
It was a dream start for Bury but Taunton showed their class by immediately putting Bury under pressure.
Two straightforward penalties were declined and instead kicked for the corner, but on both occasions Bury stole the lineouts to clear.
A mid air collision saw Anderson-Brown forced to leave the field early, with Merolle stepping in — before he was also withdrawn through injury.
A strong Bury scrum earned them a penalty and, although they lost the line out, Will Scholes retrieved the ball and stormed into the visitors’ 22 before slipping the ball to Sean Stapleton who burst through a hole in the defence for the Wolfpack’s second try.
Taunton played with pace and quality and stretched Bury for long periods, as they put everything in to their defence. They were tenacious and often hounded the Titans into mistakes.
And one of those errors gave Fraser Honey space to hit a straightforward drop goal after his forwards had earned him a penalty advantage.
A penalty on the stroke of half-time finally got Taunton on the board as Bury began to ran out of steam.
Smith said: “I think a big part of why we lost this one was a fitness thing.
“Firstly, we have some really big lads and that has advantages, but one disadvantage is there ability to last 80 minutes in a fast paced game.
“They ran out of steam at the end of the first half, in fact either side of the half-time.
“And throughout the second half there were lulls in their energy too.
“Obviously that’s something we’ll be working on, we don’t want to be running out of steam at such important moments.”
The early part of the second half belonged to the visitors and Gary Kingdom quickly began reducing the arrears as Taunton turned the screw.
Two penalties and a converted try turned the game on its head.
To make matters worse for the home team, they then lost their second scrum-half of the day, forcing centre Liam McBride to pick up the mantle.
But it made space for debutant Osborne, who showed his potential worth to the team.
Bury tried to regroup but the pace at which Taunton played constantly challenged.
Roared on by a crowd of more than 500, Bury kept at it.
Honey narrowed the scores to 23-20 with a penalty but, when it mattered most, Taunton did the basics well and were able to earn another penalty.
Kingdom was never going to miss and the lead was stretched back out to six points with five minutes to go.
Then came the dramatic final play of the match, a great drive from a line out set up the chance for Osborne to dive for the line. An enthralling end entertained the crowd but, in the end, Bury came up short.
On Saturday, the Wolfpack are again at home, as they host Worthing (3pm).
Man of the match: Will Scholes