OXFORDSHIRE’S hopes of defending their title are hanging in the balance after they suffered a frustrating 18-17 defeat against Essex.

Craig Burrows’s side headed into the Bill Beaumont County Championship Division 3 encounter knowing victory at Harlow would see them top Pool 1.

But they were unable to hold on to a two-point lead with nine minutes remaining as they were beaten in the pouring rain.

Oxon’s hopes, as they did last year, now rest with Buckinghamshire, who must beat Essex on Saturday to help them top the group and reach successive finals.

A back injury to Ian Isham in the warm-up was perhaps a sign of things to come on what turned out to be a frustrating day.

Essex dominated the early territory, but a tenth-minute penalty was all they had to show for their efforts.

Oxon hit back and Guy Fairburn raced over, Ed Phillips adding the extras, to make it 10-3.

But the hosts hit back with a converted try of their own to lead by three points after 33 minutes.

Oxfordshire replied again on the stroke of half-time to head into the break 12-10 in front, when a catch and drive led to front-row forward Dave Manning grounding for an unconverted score.

The visitors continued in the same vein after the break and Adam Neal’s try extended their lead.

But Phillips crucially missed another conversion as their advantage only stood at seven points after 44 minutes.

Oxon continued to dominate, but they were unable to turn territory into points.

And on 68 minutes Essex scored a breakaway unconverted try to reduce the deficit.

The big moment arrived three minutes later when Ramez Farahani was sin-binned and the hosts slotted a 30-metre penalty for a one-point lead.

Oxon’s Tom Hall was then red-carded for a high tackle as they were forced to end the game with 13 men.

The visitors kept going and created a number of opportunities, but they were unable to break through.