NORTHWICH moved to within one game of Twickenham in the most dramatic of victories in the EDF Senior Vase quarter-final on Saturday.
Before an enthralled 800-strong crowd on the banks of the Avon they stormed ahead and were pegged back to a single-point advantage.
And with three minutes remaining they faced a penalty.
Had the home kicker gone for the three points Northwich would almost certainly have suffered their first defeat of the season.
But Simon Brain had lost confidence in his own ability and opted for touch and a line-out which would give his side and heavier pack the chance to force their way over the line.
But Northwich props Chris James and John Brotherton threw back row forward Chris Heywood into the air and he stretched every sinew to win the ball.
The Northwich pack drove down field and encamped themselves on the Stratford try line, staying there until the final action. A penalty for offside which Gary Bell happily kicked into touch ended a tremendous contest.
Northwich made a dream start with Graham Robinson releasing David Khanyile for a try in the corner.
Bell failed with the conversion, but landed two long-range penalties in 17 and 30 minutes.
But in the 35th minute the Stratford pack mauled and trundled their way over the try line. French second row Flo Vialan claimed the try and Brain conver ted.
Stratford regained possession from the restart and kicked ahead to North-wich full back Adam Bown who pinned back his ears, carved his way through the congestion and swapped passes with Khanyile for a contender for try of the season.
Bell mesmerised the crowd by converting from the touchline, but the gap was back at eight points by the break when Steve Campbell was penalised and Brain landed the penalty.
A heavy shower changed the second half playing conditions in favour of the forwards, but Bell edged Northwich further ahead with his third penalty conversion.
Northwich tried to stem the flow and Graham Robinson was sinbinned for pulling down a maul.
The effect was devastating and in the 10-minute period, cheered to the rafters by the home crowd, the Stratford pack ripped Northwich apart and created tries for Max O'Connor and captain Richard Pepperell.
At 21-20 came the penalty and Brain's crucial - and wrong - decision.
Northwich: Cartman (James 60 mins), Hill (Pasiya 58 mins), Brotherton, Heath (Farley 35 mins), Simpson (C), Miritana, Heywood, Robinson, Davies, Bell, Chubb, Campbell, Smith, Khanyile, Bown. Sub not used: Taylor.
Northwich host Leigh on Saturday (2.30pm).
* Mike Gallimore scored a try and Brett Stanley kicked the conversion and penalty in Northwich 2nds' 10-3 win over Crewe & Nantwich.