Bury St Edmunds 25
Bury avoided a banana skin on their promotion run-in as they ground out a win at Westcliff to remain within touching distance of the summit.
Although Bury’s failure to gain a bonus point leaves them trailing leaders London Irish Wild Geese by that solitary point, they know any sort of victory over their title rivals in a mammoth encounter at The Haberden on January 31 will take them to the top.
Westcliff had seen off promotion hopefuls Hertford and Westcombe Park on their own patch in recent weeks and Bury were in danger of becoming another victim when they trailed 12-5 before storming back to clinch victory.
Both sides made a bright start, but Bury scored with their first meaningful attack of the game.
Tim Mann half broke through the defence and offloaded the ball to Tristan Rawcliffe, who drew in the full-back and passed for captain Chris Snelling — back from a knee injury — to finish off the move.
Westcliff — with the elements in their advantage in the first half — looked to kick in behind Bury and turn the screw up front, while Bury were looking dangerous out wide on the counter.
The midpoint of the half saw the lead change hands.
Bury were penalised for early engagement at a scrum and a quick tap penalty and some good handling resulted in substitute Ashley Whiting powering over from close range.
Jack Jones added the extras to make it 7-5 to the hosts.
It went from bad to worse for Bury within five minutes.
Too often players were getting isolated or losing the ball in contact, resulting in the initiative being given to Westcliff.
When a scrum was taken against the head, it allowed West to kick to the corner and the Bury lineout put under pressure.
The lineout was stolen and a well-organised catch and drive saw captain Ian Dartnell power over to pump up the visitors.
Bury, by contrast, looked lacklustre and the absence of Matt Edison and Sam Bixby was noted up front, particularly in the lineout where Bury were having a wretched time.
However, moments before the break, they got back on level terms.
A bouncing ball in midfield was deftly flicked out to Charlie Pask by Kieran Black.
Two shimmies and a 40-metre sprint later, Pask was touching down by the posts before converting himself.
They only went in level though thanks to a fantastic last-gasp tackle by Rawcliffe on the rampaging Isiah Menea.
With Bury still struggling into the second half, a moment of inspiration from Greg White earned him a tremendous solo try and the Bulk Powders man-of-the-match award.
Having superbly caught an up and under amid a sea of bodies, he sidestepped his way through the traffic and raced away for a cracking score.
Substitute Michael Sage added the extras and Bury led again.
Westcliff narrowed the gap to 19-17 within minutes, but missed the chance to pull level as the conversion was missed.
Jesse Rush (ankle) and George Bretag-Norris (fractures above and below left eye) departed the game, but Bury’s spirit shone through as they ground out the remaining time.
Shaq Meyers charged down Jones’ kick and was only denied a try when the ball bounced out the back into touch.
However, Bury did extend the lead through the boot of Pask from 30 metres.
That prompted Westcliff to go for the corner rather than the posts from their own penalty with 10 minutes to go and Bury disrupted the hosts’ drive before clearing their lines when the Essex outfit were penalised.
Bury’s composure told as they were able to see the game out, with the final act being a Pask penalty from 25 metres that was slotted calmly through the uprights.