A performance of “Championship quality” by Tom Skelding inspired Barnstaple’s best result of the season.
The player-coach seemed as determined as anyone to end a two-year wait for a Devon derby win in National League Three South West.
He had spoken of his disappointment at losing to both Brixham and Newton Abbot earlier in the season and how beating them was a target for the second half of the campaign.
That desire showed most of all when Skelding hauled down Ben Lovell to deny Brixham a try that would have given them a handy lead midway through the first half.
Instead it was Barnstaple who were up at half time and they went on to complete an 18-14 win.
Having recently become a father for the second time, Skelding took a break from changing nappies to guide a makeshift Barnstaple team with an outstanding display in the second row.
Steve Perry, the joint head coach, said: “Tom is a Championship quality player and the lads can learn a huge amount from him.
“He sets an example, which you have to when you’re a player-coach.”
With Sam Simmonds twice scoring from the back of scrums, Barnstaple fans must have feared their team would blow it when they packed down in their own 22 from the last play. But Skelding and his forwards were strong at the set piece and they won a penalty to clinch the long-awaited victory.
In the loose, Skelding was an almost constant presence at the shoulder of stand-in fly half Will Topps, whose frequent line breaks earned him the sponsors’ vote as man of the match.
The first of those breaks brought Barnstaple an eighth-minute try.
Topps, the only player on show who had featured in all nine derby defeats, went through the middle and offloaded superbly for Luke Berry to finish. Berry, lining up in the unfamiliar position of inside centre, added the conversion.
Brixham responded with a spell of pressure that led to Matt Gohl being sent to the sin bin for pulling down a maul.
They drew level when the impressive Simmonds looped around the blind side of a scrum that was going backwards for a try which Lovell converted.
It was Brixham’s only reward for their efforts in the first half as Steve Worth knocked on when well placed, Matt Tichias was held up and Skelding made his try-saving tackle on Lovell.
By the 35th minute, Barnstaple were back in front at 10-7 after Jonny Brown was penalised for offside and Berry knocked over a penalty.
Lovell skewed a penalty attempt well wide before Barnstaple took an 18-7 lead in a 10-minute purple patch.
Toby Williamson and Mike Peek nearly got over the line but Barum settled for a Berry penalty.
Winston James, captaining the side in the absence of Ryan Carter, then led a surge from the restart and finished with a dash into the right corner.
In full flow, Barnstaple looked set to add to their lead, but the wind was taken out of their sails when they knocked on from the restart.
Simmonds again broke from the scrum and brushed aside Shaun East, who had been on the field a matter of seconds, to score under the posts.
Lovell’s simple conversion cut the lead to four points with about 15 minutes to go.
A yellow card for prop Ryan Hopkins, again for pulling down a maul, hurt Brixham’s chances of completing the turnaround, but the 14 men finished on the front foot.
When Barnstaple were penalised for putting their hands into a ruck in the final minute, they compounded the error by talking back to the referee and had to retreat 10 metres.
The safe option would have been to tap the penalty and charge, but Brixham chose to scrummage. It backfired when, after one reset, they were penalised for the front row popping up.
Another late and narrow defeat to a Devon rival might have been too much for Barnstaple to take – so they needed no second invitation to get the ball off the pitch.
“It was a superb performance from the front row and the forward pack in general,” said Perry. “They led by example and defended with their hearts.”