READING Abbey head coach Fungai Mutepfa paid tribute to his players after an astonishing second-half comeback ended with a 30-29 Southern Counties North home win against Thatcham, writes Richard Ashton.

The home side produced a dire first half in which they conceded five tries to trail 29-10, but scored 20 unanswered points after the break – culminating with a sensational toucline conversion late on by Diego de Marcilla Bahlsen (pictured) – to snatch a famous victory.

Speaking to the Chronicle, Mutepfa admitted to mixed emotions on his side's Jekyll and Hyde performance, stating: "All credit goes to the players for turning it round.

"They knew they weren’t playing well and we re-grouped at half time, and I think Thatcham maybe helped us a little bit by trying to play too much rugby in the second half.

"We got our tails up and we scored first. Our defence was a lot better and we took away their time and space.

"Fair play to Diego for getting those kicks, especially the last one – that takes a lot of guts.

"The team deserve credit for coming back in a tough game.

"It says a lot about the character of the guys to come back, but it’s also frustrating that they don’t play like that week-in, week-out.

"If they could show that consistency every week then you know you’re onto a winner.

He continued: "In the first half our defence was not up to speed, and the commitment and passion were similar.

"It looked like what happened at Reading in terms of our body language and we didn’t want it to happen here.

"Defence is all about attitude and we didn’t have it in the first half, but fair play to them, they finished off some good tries.

"We were struggling to get into second gear in defence, we were making tackles and then lying on the floor for five seconds. Our players weren’t reacting."

Things had actually begun reasonably brightly for Abbey, a de Marcilla Bahlsen penalty giving them an early lead, but Thatcham hit back with the game's opening try, scored by full back Liam Rowland.

The visitors extended their lead with a blistering try from wing Jack Harwood, who scorched down the right touchline from half-way after Abbey had kicked possession away. Joe Leadley's attempted conversion struck the post, but Thatcham held a 10-3 advantage.

Abbey levelled matters shortly after, though, when a fabulous through-the-legs pass from Luke Burns gave wing Remi Norville the chance to finish in the right-hand corner. The youngster showed great power and quick feet to evade a couple of would-be tacklers and dot down. De Marcilla Bahlsen struck a superb conversion to make it 10-10.

Yet the remainder of the half was painful to watch for the Rose Hill faithful, the lack of defensive intensity allied to a number of errors enabling Leadley to go over under the posts for a converted score, Chris Dixon to seal the try bonus-point and Rowland to bag his second as the visitors surged ahead.

Abbey began their road to redemption with a long-distance de Marcilla Bahlsen penalty, and another cut the gap to 29-16.

Jules Greenaway butchered a glaring opportunity to score when he dropped the ball on the left wing with the line at his mercy, but Abbey did manage a second try when Dan Love cut a beautiful line and showed just enough strength to go over.

And they completed a stunning fightback with less than five minutes remaining as Norville again finished superbly on the right, before the nerveless de Marcilla Bahlsen struck a sweet conversion straight through the uprights from the touchline.

Reflecting on the game, Mutepfa commented: "A win like this is much better than one by 50 points.

"We won by 70-odd points at Drifters, but we weren’t tested and when you look at the video tape there’s not much you can get out of it.

But games like this, apart from the character, there’s loads you can pick up from it in terms of how we put ourselves under pressure.

"As a player I definitely preferred these tighter games as you can never give up until the final whistle."

Mutepfa was particularly impressed by hooker Mark Toland, adding: "He stepped up, I think it was one of the best games I’ve seen him play.

"He’s been outstanding, defensively, carrying, his line-outs. He was under pressure in the scrum because we were under pressure at tight-head, but he managed to hold his own."

Reading Abbey remain sixth in the table ahead of a trip to Wallingford this Saturday, and Mutepfa is in confident mood they can continue to build momentum.

He concluded: "Last time we played (2016) we beat them quite convincingly at home, but they’re a different animal at their place.

"But looking at how results have gone, I’d back ourselves if we turn up with the mental attitude, passion and spirit we had in the second half.

"The challenge is to see if we can do that for 80 minutes."