DARLINGTON Mowden Park may have lost a little of their cutting edge on the heavier pitches, but their resolute defence is keeping them firmly in a promotion race which will go to the wire.
They didn't concede a try in overturning a 9-5 interval deficit to win 15-9 at Chester, having dug deep for a similar victory at home to Sedgley Park the previous week.
22-17 win at Birmingham and Solihull, while Stourbridge's bonus point in a 34-25 home win against Otley took them one ahead of Mowden, who have a game in hand.
After their free-scoring exploits in early season, Mowden have picked up the four-try bonus only once in the last five games. But defence will surely be the key to their match at Stourbridge on March 29.
They finish off at home to Macclesfield on April 26, otherwise none of the top three have any games left against top six clubs.
As against Sedgley, it was scrum half Zylon McGaffin who nipped over for the decisive try and again it resulted from forward pressure.
Two penalties and a drop goal gave Chester a 9-0 lead before Mowden flanker Jack Allcock finished off a catch-and-drive try just before half-time.
Solid defence kept Chester out early in the second half and Mowden began to take control in the final quarter. Another line-out was driven to the line prior to McGaffin's try, converted by replacement Tom Hodgson, who added a 76th-minute penalty.
Blaydon's decline continued in National One, although they remain sixth. They led 27-10 with 30 minutes left at home to Old Albanians but then sent their replacements on and hardly saw the ball as they slipped to a 34-27 defeat.
Both sides scored good tries in an entertaining game, in which the visitors drew level through a penalty with three minutes left then kept the ball until they scored in the left corner.
Flanker Harry Bate rewarded Blaydon's early forward dominance when he was driven over, then scrum half Andy Davies caught a kick inside his own 22 and beat five men on a 50-metre run before sending winger Sean Brown under the posts.
Tom Penny made a searing run early in the second half to lay on a try for fellow centre Tom Banks.
Fly half Andrew Baggett, who converted all three tries and added two penalties, will miss this week's rearranged game at Henley, when Tynedale will be praying that Blaydon do them a favour.
Tynedale lost 31-11 at Rosslyn Park and are only four points ahead of second-bottom Henley, who thrashed Wharfedale 52-22.
Centre Ben Frankland continued his amazing run of scoring, this time with an interception try, and when Gavin Beasley added a penalty Tynedale led 8-3. Three more penalties saw them trail 12-8 at half-time, but Beasley reduced the gap to one before the hosts pulled away in the last half hour.
The fierce scrap for survival in National Three North saw Billingham dragged back into trouble when they lost 17-5 at Beverley, where Craig Shepherd scored their try.
They are one point ahead of Waterloo and three in front of Percy Park, who have two games in hand.
Westoe's chances of pulling clear weren't helped by a 31-30 defeat at home to second-bottom Bradford and Bingley. The lead kept changing hands, but Westoe converted only one of their five tries, scored by Joe McKenzie (2), Haydn Richards, Jordan Carey and Chris Judson. The Bees' fourth try, 14 minutes from time, proved the winner.
Middlesbrough gave themselves a lifeline in North One East when a late try by skipper Rob Bellerby gave them a 27-24 win at Malton and Norton.
They can climb out of the bottom three when they play their rearranged game at home to Morpeth this week.
Boro remain a point behind Malton, who have a tough run-in, and two behind Morpeth. It is unlikely they will catch anyone else.
After a slow start Boro began to handle well and winger Connor Foley scored in the corner then centre Richard Metcalfe scored by the posts for Matthew Todd to convert.
Malton scored a converted try just before half-time before Boro prop Richard Lonsdale charged over, Todd again converting before adding a penalty for a 22-7 lead.
A yellow card for lock Phil Harland proved a turning point and two converted tries plus a penalty put Malton 24-22 ahead. But with two minutes left the Boro forwards drove on and Bellerby scored in the corner.
Bottom club Sheffield have not given up hope, winning a poor game 6-3 at West Hartlepool, who were badly out of sorts. West had no complaints as Sheffield missed several penalties and were twice held up over the line.
Horden remain ten points clear in Durham and Northumberland One after winning 32-15 at home to Ponteland. Durham City beat Bishop Auckland 32-16, but Guisborough remain on course for a second successive crack at the promotion play-off. They thrashed fellow hopefuls Blyth 54-15 and trail City by one point with a game in hand.
Depleted Stockton lost 24-13 at Medicals to remain fourth from the bottom. They were 8-0 down before scoring after 20 minutes with their first meaningful attack, when scrum half Brian Thwaites spotted a gap ten metres out and strolled over, Jeremy Good converting.
Penalties were exchanged, making it 11-10 at half-time, but another Good penalty was Stockton's only reward in the second half and a late try made sure for Medicals.
A late rally from Durham School was not enough to earn them a trip to Twickenham as they lost their NatWest Schools Under 18 Cup semi-final 20-15 against Warwick at Saracens' Allianz Park.
Warwick appeared to be easing to victory at 20-3 until the sin-binning of fly-half Henry Stride. Durham capitalised with winger Matt Wilson and full-back Adam Redman crossing for tries.
Redman was Durham's biggest threat, but he said: "I think we were a little bit flustered. We let the occasion get to us, and that punished us a lot when they scored almost straightaway. But the boys showed great character to come back."
Newcastle winger Zack Kibirige scored one try as England Under 20s put in an excellent display of attacking rugby against Wales to win 67-7 at Kingston Park. Flanker Gus Jones led the way with four of England's ten tries.