Otley were literally forced into shuffling their pack with James Tiffany, Matt Stockdale & Paul Williams on the injury list and Dan Hyde serving the last week of his suspension. Xavier Andre and Nathan Bland started on the flanks with Howard Parr taking a place as makeshift No.8. Oliver Hawkins made his league debut in the second row alongside the trojan Richard Snowball.
With Guy Easterby and Adam Greendale unavailable, Dave McCormack and Alistair Monks continued at half-back.
Southend have proved an awkward proposition on their own patch this season and undoubtedly saw this as an opportunity to cause an upset against the league leaders who were missing a number of players.
Southend started the brighter of the two sides and Samoan international centre Faapulou Soolefai hit a perfectly angled line to cut through 30 yards out and score. Winger Andrew Frost added the extras and Southend led 7-0 after 10 minutes.
Otley were soon pressed into defensive mode again but centre Paul Mooney led the way. Broken field specialist Andre then raced clear in a counter-attacking move which broke down just over halfway after a forward pass.
Otley's Rob Kitching and Southend's Frost exchanged penalties and Southend led 10-3. Otley had soaked up everything the hosts had thrown at them and should have made it 10-6 but Kitching was wide with a straightforward penalty attempt which was the only blemish on an otherwise perfect goalkicking display.
Matters were made worse on the stroke of half-time when Southend fly-half Simon Hoult evaded some uncharacteristically poor attempted tackles to score next to the posts. Frost converted to make it 17-3 and the hosts went into the sheds at half-time with their tails up.
Otley's approach in the second half was much more direct against a Southend side who looked uncomfortable when not in possession. Good work by the forwards put Southend on the back foot and the ball was spread wide to Kitching who raced away down the left wing before slipping the pass inside to the ubiquitous Andre who showed immense power to hold off several defenders and crash over in the corner. Kitching converted magnificently from the touchline and Otley were back within a converted score at 17-10.
Otley were now starting to exert their authority on proceedings and Kitching was only thwarted from scoring in the corner by a superb last ditch tackle by opposite number Tyson Lewis. Otley remained on the attack until a fumbled ball in midfield allowed Southend to break clear and nearly score a length of the field try. Excellent scrambling defence prevented the Seasiders from crossing the whitewash but Frost did land another penalty to make it 20-10.
That proved to be the last points for Southend as Otley slipped up another gear. Skipper Ian Shuttleworth moved up to fly-half with Kyle Dench coming on at full-back and the switch paid immediate dividends. Shuttleworth put Andre into a gap on halfway and this time the backrower showed great speed to outpace the Southend covering defence and score his second superb try of the match. Kitching landed the conversion and Otley were within 3 points at 20-17.
Southend were pressed into desperation as Otley surged after the win. Soolefai was sin-binned for ielegal use of the boot at a ruck and then the hosts' captain and second-row Andrew McClintock was sent to join him after twice dangerously pulling down Parr at a line-out 5 yards from the Southend line.
Otley opted to scrummage against the depleted home pack but Parr was felled just short of the line and was penalised for holding on. Southend were able to clear their lines and the loud cheer in delight from the home crowd seemed to suggest that an epic win was on their way.
From the resulting line-out on halfway, Southend's Hoult kicked across field and the ball came to rest 5 yards from Otley's line. What followed was one of the best pieces of rugby the Warners Bridge Park faithful will have ever seen. Shuttleworth jinked the on-rushing Lewis and raced up the left handside for 30 metres before drawing a defender with a pass to Kitching. The wingman carried on the play for another 30 metres before passing back inside to the supporting Dench who pinned his ears back and headed for the corner. Dench may well have got to the line himself but unselfishly floated an inside pass over the head of the last covering defender to Steve Parsons who had tracked across from the right hand wing to collect the pass and round behind the posts for a simply sublime try.
Southend's players looked absolutely shell-shocked at how they had been torn to pieces in such a clinically brutal fashion. Kitching added the extras to rub salt into the wounds and Otley led 20-24 with time running out.
Roared on by the partisan home support, Southend were awarded two penalties on half-way which they kicked into the Otley '22 to set up a nail-biting finish. Having worked so hard to take the lead, Otley were in no mood to let it slip away and stole the line-out on both occasions to deny the hosts much needed possession.
With the referee signalling time was over, Shuttleworth launched the ball over the stand to bring an end to an intensely competitive encounter.
This was not Otley's best performance of late but it ranked alongside the hard-fought wins at Redruth and Blackheath in terms of delivering what is needed when backs are against the wall in adversity.
Otley now look ahead to next weekend's eagerly awaited clash at home to Manchester. The selection committee should have a few headaches ahead of the fixture with Danny Smith, Rob Whatmuff, Ryan Wederall and Justin Wring having had run-outs for the Saracens and Guy Easterby, Dan Hyde and Paul Williams set to return to the fold.
Southend: Green, Lewis (Billings 75), Soolefai, Harvey, Frost, Hoult, Powell, Williams, Pay, Cook, McClintock, Rosam, Legge (Meslane 65), Gill (Johnson 70), Connors
Otley: Shuttleworth (capt); Parsons, Buchanan, Mooney (Dench 47-54), Kitching; Monks (Dench 64), McCormack; Trethewey, Steele (Sayers 79), Fullman; Snowball, Hawkins; Bland, Andre, Parr
Referee: D Gamage (RFU)
Tries: Soolefai, Hoult
Cons: Frost (2)
Pens: Frost (2)
Tries: Andre (2), Parsons
Cons: Kitching (3)
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