Title winners grind out results even when they are not at their best and Banbury Bulls did just that on Saturday.
The Midlands Two West South leaders retained their nine-point advantage after a second half comeback to beat Malvern 28-15 at Bodicote Park.
But the victory came at a cost with the influential Matt Goode sustaining a broken arm which rules him for the remainder of the campaign.
The visitors had more hunger and desire than the leaders in the first half and it was only a couple of moments of individual brilliance that got Bulls going in the second half.
Banbury’s defence was resilient for the most part of the first half but Malvern were still able to get on the score board with a penalty. Missed tackles from the backline saw Malvern establish an 8-0 interval lead with Bulls already having lost Goode through injury.
Bulls had to make more of an impact with ball in hand in the second half in which Ed Phillips moved to fly half.
The territorial gains saw Bulls’ confidence grow and Phillips cleverly dummied his opposite number to score under the posts. He added the conversion and the Bodicote Park faithful breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Bulls started to play tighter and the forwards worked together to punch holes in the visitors’ defence. The second moment of brilliance came when Simon Brand ran into the Malvern defence and produced a pin-point off-load to the onrushing Ian Isham who broke clear, drew the full-back and put Phillips in for his second try under the posts.
Phillips added the conversion to Bulls in front and they started to look more like the side they have been all season.
Supporters were treated to the moment they had been waiting for all season, a try from favourite Manu Paniagua. The Argentinian prop only had the winger to beat which he duly did and Phillips added the extras from the touchline to make it 21-8.
Malvern were not finished and they scored another converted try which left them within one score of victory. Bulls got busy again with Phillips gaining territorial advantage but the skipper missed a penalty in front of the posts and his drop-goal attempt fell just short as the pressure mounted.
But with 15 seconds left on the clock, Phillips took a tap-penalty, he off-loaded from the back of the hand as he was tackled to the supporting Isham who went over. Phillips added the conversion with the last kick of the game.