YORK City Knights had a notable victory stolen from them right at the end, but even that disappointment could not detract from a highly encouraging display.
Gary Thornton’s men welcomed Championship champions Sheffield to Huntington Stadium and led 18-14 with three minutes to go, before tries by Conor Scott and Menzie Yere, the Papua New Guinea World Cup centre, gave the visitors a 24-18 win.
The match was a testimonial for Eagles hooker and pundit Andrew Henderson and attracted some famous faces, including England coach Steve McNamara and Dave Woods, the BBC commentator, who was of the opinion the Knights, on this showing, would go very well in Championship One.
They only looked second best when Mitch Stringer, last year’s Championship Player of the Year returned to the fray – but they won’t come up against anyone of his calibre in the third tier.
Knights boss Thornton said: “I’m really pleased with what we did.
“We had a terrific attitude and I’m very disappointed we didn’t win the game. I thought we had done enough but they put the likes of Menzie Yere and Mitch Stringer back on and they went up a gear – that’s what got them the win. But we did really well and I’m proud of them.”
The Eagles were without replacement hooker James Davey (hamstring) and new recruits Ben Jones (groin), the former Knights prop, and USA international Lelauloto Tagaloa, but otherwise brought a full-strength 21-man party.
Thornton was again without key signing Iain Morrison – the prop was scheduled to play but asked for another week’s training before being thrown into match action – while loose-forward Lee Paterson, the club’s other new main man, also sat this one out, having suffered a back problem in midweek.
That pair should feature in York’s final pre-season fixture against York Select next Sunday, while Jason Golden, the former Super League second-row who’s been out for nearly a year, could also make a welcome appearance.
The props who played yesterday, however, have made a strong case to keep out the big names when the season starts on March 2.
Jack Aldous was the sponsors’ man of the match, Jake Joynt again went well, and Austin Bell, playing at loose-forward – and, like a few team-mates, looking considerably beefier this year than last – was superb in the opening quarter before being withdrawn. Barring a shaky introduction, Jack Pickles likewise went well considering he also played for the under-20s on Thursday night.
Said Thornton: “The middle unit guys were tremendous. Jack Aldous stood out, Jack Pickles did well, and Austin was tremendous in his first stint. We’ve done a lot of work in training on our defence and on winning the ruck and winning the tempo, and I think that’s what we did, even though Sheffield are a very good team and are difficult to stop.”
Yesterday’s game was a friendly, but fists flew nine minutes in as Aldous and Pete Green had an altercation, both being sin-binned.
York got the penalty and at the end of that set, ex-Eagle Pat Smith’s kick was touched down by Greg Minikin, Ben Crane converting.
Yere had a half-chance to hit back but player/assistant-coach James Ford – enjoying a decent return from ankle surgery, and being a vocal cajoler throughout – hauled him down.
The visitors did respond, though. Pickles coughed up possession with his first touch, and Misi Taulapapa finished in the corner. Pickles then gave away a penalty and Corey Hanson scored.
York almost benefited from a penalty as Ford’s quick hands sent in George Elliott, but the pass was ruled forward.
Nonetheless they began the second half on top and got reward.
Ford was held up but Ryan Mallinder wasn’t, crashing over.
Then Benn Hardcastle, impressing after his introduction at half-back, crossed after a show and go, adding both conversions for an 18-8 lead.
Sheffield began their comeback on the hour, aided by a lucky repeat set – George Elliott knocking on after the visitors had fumbled the ball backwards. Stringer scored under the sticks, Dom Brambani goaling.
Jon Ford had a try ruled out, while home full-back James Haynes did well to halt Jack Blagbrough as the Eagles changed gear.
Minikin was held up as York also lifted the pace, but Sheffield had the decisive word.
Haynes was an unfortunate fall guy, caught out by deceptive bounces and caught in-goal to concede a dropout.
Conor Scott made him pay, crashing over for Brambani to convert, and Yere sealed victory when steaming through from 40 yards.
The Knights will check on Jack Lee (thumb), though Greg Minikin and Bell, who both suffered facial cuts, should be okay for next Sunday.
Knights: Haynes, Elliott, James Ford, Minikin, L Hardcastle, P Smith, Presley, Joynt, Lee, Aldous, Mallinder, Crane, Bell. Subs (all used): Brining, E Smith, B Hardcastle, Pickles, Morland.
Tries: Minikin 12; Mallinder 47; B Hardcastle 55. Goals: Crane 12; B Hardcastle 47, 55.
Sheffield: Laula-Togagae, Turner, Yere, Hanson, Taulapapa, Walker, Brambani, Scott, Henderson, Stringer, Garside, Green, Knowles. Subs (all used): Burns, Blagbrough, Hope, Straugheir, Hadden, Jon Ford, Palmer, Squire.
Tries: Taulapapa 19; Hanson 23; Stringer 60; Scott 77; Yere 79.
Goals: Brambani 60, 77.
Referee: Thomas Crashley (Wakefield).