Bees provide champions-elect Stockport with a stern test

Bradford & Bingley 16

Stockport 22

Although there is still a third of the season remaining, this victory probably handed the title to Stockport as they now have a 10-point cushion and a game in hand on their nearest rivals.

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The sides meet again in March but it will take a major reversal in fortunes for Stockport not to be confirmed as champions by then.

There are no bonus points awarded for style or artistic merit in this league and the brutally effective Stockport game plan reflects this.

They rumbled on to victory, squeezing the life out of the Bees in the second half with their bludgeoning attack and blanket defence.

The Bees opened the brighter of the sides and enjoyed long periods of dominance in the first half. However, despite the best efforts of Grant Litt and Steve Brimacombe in midfield, the Bees could not quite make that final incisive burst for the line.

The Bees pack also appeared to have the upper hand and could have earned a string of penalties as the Stockport front row stood up every time they were under pressure in the scrum.

Gavin Stead continued his fine kicking form and slotted three penalties but Stockport’s pack drove over at the other end with Nick Smith emerging from the pile to claim the score.

It was 9-5 at the break but the second half was increasingly all about the visitors’ ability to camp inside the home 22.

The Bees could not clear their lines and when one wayward clearance from Brimacombe was returned by a Stockport back, debutant Giles Hetherington allowed the ball to bounce, allowing a jubilant Stockport pack to retrieve the ball with substitute hooker Tom Cruse galloping in unopposed for the score.

The conversion and a penalty from former Bees man Jonny Edwards put the visitors six points clear with 20 minutes remaining. The siege continued and every advance made by the Bees seemed to turn into a Stockport penalty, which Edwards boomed back into the corners, hoping to set up his pack for the decisive score.

That score arrived from No 8 Ben Davey on 73 minutes as the Stockport pack shunted the Bees pack over the line.

The home side did not capitulate and came roaring back in the final few moments. The Bees got over the line with the final play of the game as aGrant Litt’s break put winger James Morton through for a try converted by Stead, who earned the losing bonus point.

Chester 8

Sandal 8

Sandal came from third-placed Chester feeling they deserved better than a share of the points.

Chester hardly had a touch of the ball in the first 15 minutes as Sandal came out with all guns blazing, taking the lead when scrum-half Max Whittingham darted over.

Ten minutes later, they extended their advantage with a penalty by fly-half Greg Wood before the hosts started to get into the game.

They clawed back three points with a penalty and then levelled the scores in the build-up to the break, forcing their way over out wide.

In the second half, Sandal dominated and never looked threatened. A mixture of sensible work with the ball in hand and intelligent positioning allowed them to control the remainder of the game and they spent the majority of it camped on the opposition line.

In the last 10 minutes, it seemed to be when and not if Sandal would score but Chester held firm to claim a share of the spoils.