“IT’LL be a miracle if we get anywhere near a bonus point,” said one York City Knights supporter ahead of yesterday’s game against the Kingstone Press Championship might of Featherstone.
Well, fittingly for Easter, the sensational occurrence the home faithful craved did indeed take place.
Winning a game of rugby is not in the same league as the resurrection of course but, in sporting terms, following the downfall at Keighley last time out, this was akin to rising from the grave.
The visitors to Huntington Stadium, Championship table-toppers for the last three years, are widely regarded as the best team outside Super League. The Knights, already huge underdogs, saw their odds lengthened further when it was confirmed no dual-reg lads from Hull would be made available and that props Craig Potter and Luke Stenchion would also be ruled out, joining front-row stalwart Adam Sullivan on the sidelines.
It was then learned Nathan Freer, having just re-signed for the club, would have to play at the Pock 7s rugby union jolly for Bishop Burton College under the terms of his scholarship, despite his request to be released.
With so many players missing, Knights boss Gary Thornton was forced into giving debuts to Nat Browne – just days after his arrival from Featherstone – and second-row Jack Pickles, who has only a few under-20s run-outs to his name since his rise out of the amateur game. Youngster Tyler Craig, yet to feature this season, was also on the bench.
As Thornton said, nobody gave his side a prayer.
However, the salvation they sought following the capitulation at Cougar Park arrived thanks to a performance which not only shocked Featherstone but also turned a few supporters into Doubting Thomases, struggling to believe what had happened.
It also left plenty debating whether it was the best result, all things considered, since the club as a whole enjoyed it’s own regeneration some 11 years ago.
Perhaps it wasn’t as important as the Championship One Grand Final win over Oldham in 2010, or the 2005 demolition of National League Two title rivals Dewsbury, or as downright thrilling as the 12-man last-minute Challenge Cup win over Featherstone in 2004.
But have the Knights ever beaten a side so consistently good as Daryl Powell’s current vintage?
And that’s before considering the number of players on the sidelines, the likes of Sullivan and long-term crock Jason Golden, who were among the first to congratulate their team-mates on the pitch after the final hooter.
Were Featherstone taking it easy?
When winger Tommy Saxton threw a daft pass early on, it hinted at overconfidence, but Powell had said in the build-up they would up the intensity to themselves return to winning ways after defeat at Grand Final conquerors Sheffield. He fielded a full-strength side too.
Such a victory looked afoot when, after a smart kick by Liam Finn, Ben Hellewell, who had a spell at York on dual-reg from Warrington a year ago, put the visitors ahead.
However, this is Easter and an eggs-traordinary sequence then took place.
A mix-up between Hellewell and Tom Hodson under the restart gave York the ball in the red zone, a penalty followed, and prop Matt Nicholson took it quickly and ran straight and hard to the try-line.
Nicholson – the new Press Player of the Year leader – later departed in agony due to his troublesome shoulder and will not play at Barrow on Monday. He goes under the knife next week to get it fixed and will be massive loss in the months ahead – a sobering consideration among the exultation.
At least he could play a leading role yesterday, underlined by the surging run just five minutes later, which, followed by good passes from Simon Brown and Jack Latus saw left-winger Browne dance inside to score just 17 minutes into his Knights career.Three minutes later, Browne, who turns 24 this week, got another birthday present courtesy of Latus’ brilliant long-range break. He won’t forget this debut in a hurry.
Tom Carr converted all three tries to likewise rack up points against a club who had deemed him not good enough, and it all prompted an angry Powell to bring on all his subs to shake up his side.
It worked – to some extent.
Greg Worthington should have scored but Jonny Presley somehow knocked the ball from his grasp, several team-mates were held up at the whitewash and Matty Dale had a try controversially ruled out.
They finally got reward, helped by a lucky ricochet in back play, through Worthington, Liam Finn converting to reduce the deficit to 18-10 at half-time.
It was soon 18-16 as Andy Bostock crashed over, a comeback looking likely.
But wait. Nicholson ran hard again and teenage sub Kriss Brining, quick and smart at dummy-half, stretched over.
Carr expertly continued his 100 per cent record with the boot but, if his kicking game was good, Brown’s was even better.
The stand-off booted two 40-20s, regularly found the floor and continually turned Rovers around, while smart match-play so evident in his title-winning time at Sheffield was to the fore too.
Featherstone spent too much of the second period in their own half to effect a turnaround, and when they did get into opposition territory, they were met with a defiant defensive effort across the pitch which, from first minute to last, prevented what seemed certain scores.
Thornton had been wary of throwing the inexperienced Craig into such a tight tussle but he did so in the last five minutes after Nicholson and the superb Sam Scott departed with injury. Craig, in keeping with the team’s performance, immediately came up with a key play, reading Finn’s chip over the defensive line and getting possession back.
If the cheer that greeted the final hooter is anything to go by, this was proof, following the debacle at Keighley, that it pays to keep the faith.
Knights: Carr 10, Browne 9, Ford 9, Latus 9, Haynes 8, Brown 10, Presley 9, Nicholson 10, Lee 9, Aldous 9, Scott 10, Pickles 8, Smith 9. Subs (all used): Brining 9, Iley 8, Bell 8, Craig 6.
Tries: Nicholson 12; Browne 17, 20; Brining 51.
Conversions: Carr 12, 17, 20, 51.
Featherstone: Hardman, Saxton, Hellewell, Worthington, Hodson, Briggs, Finn, England, Ellis, James, Lockwood, Bussey, Dale. Subs (all used): Crossley, Bostock, Bryan, Kain.
Tries: Hellewell 10; Worthington 35; Bostock 46.
Conversions: Finn 35, 46.
Man of the match: take your pick. Matty Nicholson got the sponsors’ award, but Simon Brown gets the nod here after kicking Featherstone to death, bolstering belief in the York ranks every time he turned Rovers around, not least in the second period when smart match-play, aided by solid kick chases, kept the visitors in their own half for long periods.
Referee: Gareth Hewer (Whitehaven) – a couple of dodgy decisions for either side, York getting the rub of the green over a disallowed Matty Dale try, but otherwise the officiating was good.
Weather: nippy but fair.
Moment of the match: either of Nat Browne’s two debut tries could have got it, but the skill displayed by Tom Carr when scooping a difficult kick on the bounce, one-handed, on his own try-line, when any hiccup could have handed Rovers a score, really was top-drawer, topped off by a pressure- relieving 40-metre run down the right touchline.
Gaffe of the match: it’s a harsh one but James Haynes dropped a kick – he had taken harder ones – ten metres from his own line and Featherstone so nearly made him pay. Immense Knights defence meant it wasn’t costly, though.
Gamebreaker: there was always the danger that one Rovers try, even in the last five minutes, might lead to another, but when Tyler Craig, in his first contribution off the bench, read a little chip and got to the ball before the onrushing attackers, York had possession back with the clock ticking down.
Match rating: for Knights fans this turned Good Friday into Great Friday – arguably the best result since the club’s resurrection.