Melton RFC moved within a point of back-to-back league titles with a comprehensive top-of-the-table win over Market Harborough.
The victory eased the hurt of their first defeat of the season last time out at Lutterworth who are now the only team with a slim mathematical chance of catching Gareth Collins’ side.
Harborough started the day in second place, six points behind the leaders and on a eight-game winning streak, but Melton were boosted by a large group of supporters and sponsors.
Melton opened with lots of early pressure with the forwards creating plenty of problems, and the set scrums gave a constant supply of good ball for the backs.
Captain Marcus Badham was in imperious form, regularly stealing opposition ball, supported by Dave Osborne and Bob Prior who caused havoc in the set piece.
The early pressure saw Harborough infringe once too often and Matt Cox took the simple penalty for a 3-0 lead.
Melton continued to dominate with attacks from everywhere, but Harborough’s defence held firm. The pressure began to tell as the forwards used the pick and drive to good effect to gain territory.
This paid dividends when a well-worked rolling maul forced the visitors back. Chris Rose took quick ball and gave Cox room to flat-foot the defence, and Harvey Green scythed through the cover to score a wonderful try in the corner.
The forward play became increasingly attritional as both sides gave everything. Bob Prior was forced off with a shoulder injury and replaced by James Stapleford in the front row.
Soon after player-coach Collins took a heavy double tackle and had to leave the field. Lee Miller was then also injured and Adam Chambers came on, forcing a reshuffle which put Sam Dennison into the back row and Leon Gormley onto the wing.
Harborough hit back and earned a string of penalties as frustration set in among Melton with two yellow cards picked up for too many transgressions.
The visitors pressed for a score, but outstanding defence with 13 players preserved the clean sheet in the final phases of play before half-time.
With the game finely poised going into the second half, Melton attacked with real intent straight from kick-off with the second row of Dan Wakefield and Sam Badham tearing into the opposition.
A set scrum drove Harborough back, and Ryan Kemp took two tacklers out as he broke and gave Cox another opportunity to show his pace. Quick ball again from Rose to Carl Prior gave Harry Wood just enough room to accelerate through a narrow gap and his speed left the cover defence trailing as he scored in the corner.
Harborough responded strongly, but couldn’t break through with Mark Matthews a rock in defence at full-back. Harborough needlessly kicked away any possession they had and often took the wrong options as they looked for a way back.
The game ebbed and flowed, but Melton kept their wits when Cox’s attempted drop goal bounced off the upright, forcing a penalty which was sensibly converted.
The next score came courtesy of splendid lineout work as Dan Wakefield set up a terrific drive.
Harborough’s forwards regrouped in defence, but Melton set up another drive which gave Marcus Badham enough room to score out wide. Cox’s conversion gave Melton a more comfortable scoreline.
And from their next attacking lineout, Melton took clean ball and drove Harborough’s pack a full 30 metres in a wonderfully well-drilled move. Green cleverly spotted a gap as he popped up from the wing, taking the ball at pace and using all of his height to stretch over and score a brilliant try.
Harborough responded with a well-worked try from the restart as Melton were caught napping and an overlap gave them a consolation converted try.
Melton’s superior fitness wore down Harborough as turnover ball from a ruck saw Rose dart through before Matthews sent Green away through some tired tackling.
Green’s textbook pass saw Wood tear past the cover defence with stunning pace before rounding the full back with a sublime sidestep for a glorious try.
This crowned an emphatic bonus point win over a good Harborough side and gave Melton a nine-point lead with two games left.
Melton: D. Osborne, M. Badham, B. Prior, S. Badham, D. Wakefield, R. Kemp, L. Miller, L. Gormley, C. Rose, M. Cox, C. Prior, G. Collins, H. Wood, M. Matthews, H. Green, J. Stapleford, S. Dennison, A. Chambers.