Darlington'S 23-5 home win against Dudley Kingswinford last Saturday lifted them two places higher in National Three North and left Mowden Park occupying the third relegation place.

Mowden's 16-8 defeat away to bottom club Bedford Athletic was a severe blow, not least in that they so narrowly failed to match the bonus point picked up by relegation rivals Rugby Lions in a 17-13 home defeat by Macclesfield.

Mowden have earned only six bonus points all season, compared with Rugby's 13, so even though the Midlanders have had five points deducted for fielding an ineligible player they remain two points ahead.

They have, however, played a game more and look the best bets for Mowden to overhaul, although Blaydon will be very much in the mire if they lose at Dudley tomorrow.

Neither Mowden nor Rugby can expect much joy tomorrow as they visit third-placed Bradford and Bingley and leaders Halifax respectively.

Darlington should win again at home to Bedford and can then do Mowden a huge favour when they visit Blaydon next week, a fixture which looks likely to be repeated in the Durham Cup semi-finals.

A draw was made last weekend in the hope of somehow advancing a competition in which only Darlington have so far progressed through the first round.

It is hoped the remaining ties will be played on the scheduled semi-final date of March 26, but the backlog of league fixtures means the semis will have to wait for a midweek date when teams are free of relegation worries.

In Mowden's case that is likely to be after April 30, when they will have to win their final match at home to Fylde unless they pull off a surprise win elsewhere in the meantime.

They have to entertain Hartlepool Rovers in the cup and will then be away to Stockton or Westoe in the semi-final.

Dudley looked anything but a team who are next to the bottom in the first 20 minutes at Blackwell Meadows and have obviously not abandoned hope of beating the drop.

But with conditions dictating that handling was difficult, Dudley had nothing to show for their impressive early efforts.

They still had every chance when they trailed only 8-0 at half-time after facing the elements, which included a fierce hailstorm, but Darlington hit top form for the next 25 minutes and led 23-0 before conceding a late try.

Young hooker Dan Oselton was outstanding for Darlington, both in his tackling and picking-and-driving, while No 8 Del Lewis had a storming second half.

He produced a theatrical dive to finish off the third and final try following a superb move up the left from halfway.

With skipper Paul Lee ruled out by a broken finger, Darlington were well led by lock Richard Snowball, while Craig Lee switched to fly half and newcomer Neil Howe had a solid game on his first league start at centre.

Darlington struggled in the tight early on against bigger opponents, who also looked keen to run the ball despite the muddy conditions.

The early signs were ominous and full back David Glendenning did extremely well to thwart a Dudley attack.

Darlington finally got a drive on from a line-out on the 22, then won a scrum and with Dudley offside David Kell landed a simple penalty after 22 minutes.

There remained little between the sides until Glendenning burst into the line 25 metres out. It looked as though he could reach the right corner and he ignored the unmarked Frankie Coulson outside him, only to be brought down just short.

Seconds later a visiting centre intercepted under his own posts and had a clear run, but he was offside so Darlington swiftly moved the ball right, Oselton drove on and the ball came back again for Howe to score.

Dudley came straight back and would have scored had left winger Ian Gowland gathered a kick ahead, but with the wind dropping Darlington took the game to their opponents after the break.

After a 20-metre drive from the line-out, Lee found Kell with a quick pass and a chip ahead to the 22 ended with Dudley's left winger being spoken to by the referee.

The resulting penalty was kicked to touch ten metres out and Lee joined the line-out drive to touch down. Kell converted then Darlington again drove 20 metres on the restart before releasing Coulson on a good run and, when Dudley infringed under the posts, Kell made it 18-0.

The best try came from a blind side move from a ruck on halfway, with Glendenning's quick pass putting Kell away. His inside pass found Lewis 15 metres out and he shrugged off a tackle to dive over.

Dudley's reply came when they kicked ahead from halfway and won the race to the left corner, while Darlington twice went very close to earning a bonus point for a fourth try.

With Danny Brown unavailable and Ed Kalman no longer registered, Mowden were short of props for the trip to Bedford, so Ian Keeligan bravely agreed to defy his back problem and got through the 80 minutes.

They also had Kelekolio Paino making his first appearance of the season at blind side and he contributed well as Mowden dominated the first half.

They trailed only 8-3 after facing the wind, then drew level only to slip 11-8 behind. But they were unhappy about being denied a try which would have put them ahead with 15 minutes left.

They drove a maul 20 metres before hooker Tasi Tuhana and prop Peni Fakalelu took the ball over the line, only for the referee to rule that the front man had illegally shielded the ball carrier.

Lock Ian Robinson was penalised for disputing the decision and Bedford cleared to touch, won the line-out and almost scored in the opposite corner.

The killer blow came after 72 minutes when Robinson was sin-binned for going into a maul from the side.

Bedford swiftly put in a cross-kick to the right wing, where it was a simple task for one of two unmarked players to touch down.

Defeat was all the more disappointing because, despite playing against a strong wind, things looked promising for Mowden as they created two good chances in the first ten minutes.

But the first time Bedford escaped their own half they capitalised on poor tackling to score.

Mowden came back with scrum half Shaun Richardson leading the way, but after 25 minutes Bedford broke out again and kicked a penalty.

Again Mowden hit back and did everything but score until the referee finally penalised Bedford for offside and Iain Dixon made it 8-3 at the break.

With the wind behind them Mowden looked likely winners as they took the game to their hosts.

After 51 minutes good play by the forwards gained 50 metres, then fly half Martin Shaw worked a loop and Dixon came into the line to send winger Peter Phelan over.

But Phelan was injured in the process, forcing Michael Georgiou to go on as a replacement, and Bedford came back strongly. They were awarded a series of penalties, finally opting to kick one to lead 11-8 after 59 minutes.

Mowden again looked capable of snatching victory as they dominated the next ten minutes, but the disallowed try proved crucial.