IT was ironic that a few days after head coach Gary Thornton discussed in The Press the importance of not fielding too many kids at once, he found himself doing just that.
The difference for Thornton, though, is that, while his predecessor Chris Thorman had to do it in Championship matches, contributing to bottom place at the end of term, this time it was done only in a friendly.
At least, that’s what is hoped is the difference.
Yesterday’s 38-16 loss to Championship One outfit North Wales Crusaders, albeit a virtually full-strength team who have eyes on promotion, showed Thornton – and the hardy Huntington Stadium faithful who withstood the cold weather and the cost of full price admission for a friendly – that, while a first-choice 17 should go well this year, another season of injury woe might leave them struggling again if they do not strengthen accordingly.
And what if the injury jinx has already struck again?
Not only were Simon Brown and Sam Scott ruled out before yesterday’s game, the former after a blow to his back last week against York Select and the latter after a knee injury in training, but packmen Jason Golden and Luke Stenchion limped off during it – all certain first-choices for the Championship kick-off at Whitehaven on February 3.
Additionally, Matty Nicholson’s shoulder did not pass a fitness test while James Haynes was likewise not risked. Haynes had been in line for a second-half cameo role but will instead be given another week before playing his first game for 12 months.
Thankfully, the injuries to Brown, Scott and Golden – a hip problem – are not thought serious, but Stenchion’s ankle trouble is worrying, even more so because the Knights are already without front-line props Adam Sullivan and Paul King indefinitely.
In their absence, prop Russ Dale overcame an awful start to his Knights career – dropping the kick-off – with a determined effort on his return to the game after virtually a two-year absence, while Austin Bell scored a debut try and impressed enough to justifiably take the sponsors’ man-of-the-match accolade.
They were both direct in style, while Bell’s touchdown was an excellent finish, blasting and turning through the defensive line.
Local products Tyler Craig and Ed Smith both worked hard, too, in the back row.
However, most of the Knights’ pack found it hard to contain big Johnny Walker, while old head Ryan McDonald, the much-travelled former Knights prop, gave them a lesson not only in the art of playing on the edge of the rules but also in getting out the offload when opponents are preoccupied with giving him one back.
A few Knights provided some decent interventions. Trialist winger Lee Nobbs dealt admirably with kicks sent his way, teenage centre Greg Minikin expertly escaped his own in-goal area at one point and later marked his first-team bow with a decent finish, and George Elliott made a couple of good runs down the left, one of which set up a late try for Jonny Presley.
Tom Carr also showed he would be an option at stand-off having moved up from full-back to fill in for Brown.
It must also be remembered that players are still rusty, this being both clubs’ second hit-out. But, after a solid first half-hour, the Knights’ defending did not bely its inexperience, a lack of strength and knowhow being more to blame for some soft tries than a lack of effort.
It was only 12-6 at half-time.
Minikin had been deemed to knock on in the tackle after 13 minutes, and from the scrum, Crusaders winger Lewys Weaver benefited from a superb Andy Gorski offload to outstrip the cover and outwit full-back Ben Dent. Weaver also added the first of his five conversions.
Bell’s fine try, plus Carr’s conversion, levelled the scores midway through a well-fought first half but the Welshman retook the lead as rotund second-row Jono Smith emerged from a pile of bodies with a touchdown.
The Knights had benefited from penalties aplenty but handling errors meant they rarely capitalised, even when referee Dave Merrick finally showed a yellow card after three too many fouls – Crusaders scrum-half Craig White the recipient just before half-time.
Indeed, the visitors were still down to 12 men when they twice overstretched the Knights defence to bring tries for Leon Brennan and Rob Massam.
A decent run in back play by trialist forward Jake Joynt set up Minikin’s try, which followed a ricochet from a Carr grubber kick.
But poor defence returned when Andy Moulsdale escaped an opponent’s clutches to score and when Jamie Durbin dummied in.
Presley’s try, after York’s best attack, should have meant the hosts at least had the last word, but Durbin’s jinking run gave Matt Reid the game’s final score.
For all the plus-points of last week’s win there were causes for concern this week. Still, isn’t that what trial games are for?
Knights: Dent, Elliott, Poutney, Minikin, Nobbs, Carr, Presley, Dale, Brining, Bell, Iley, E Smith, Golden.
Subs (all used): Lee, Stenchion, Tomlinson, Morland, Joynt, Craig.
Tries: Bell 19; Minikin 53; Presley 76. Goals: Carr 19, 53.
Crusaders: Reardon, Weaver, Roets, Brennan, Massam, Moulsdale, White, Walker, Braddish, Gorski, Middlehurst, J Smith, McConnell.
Subs (all used): McDermott, Sheen, Bowman, Johnson, Adamson, McDonald, Reid, Durbin, Stephens.
Tries: Weaver 13; J Smith 31; Brennan 42; Massam 44; Moulsdale 60; Durbin 69; Reid 80. Goals: Weaver 13, 31, 42, 60, 80.
Referee: Dave Merrick.