YORK City Knights got back on track in Championship One – just – as they held on at the death for a commendable but painfully nerve-wracking 30-26 victory at Gateshead.
Their winning start to the season had ended with defeats at Swinton in the Challenge Cup and, in a major surprise, at home to Oxford last week.
Boss Gary Thornton had claimed before that game that this Good Friday match up in the North East would be the harder of the two league assignments, hence his rotation of players last Sunday.
He was probably right, with Gateshead looking more rounded opposition than Oxford and really testing York’s mettle late on when fighting back from 30-10 down to the verge of victory. York also had to play ten minutes a man down after a bizarre yellow card to Pat Smith.
But the Knights, again with a host of changes to the line-up, including three debutants, gave a more rounded performance themselves – for the first hour at least.
They were cleaner and crisper in possession, more eager in defence and, having missed a hatful of chances last weekend, more clinical going forward. They also showed just about enough bravery – plus mental strength on the back of those two defeats - to ultimately hold on to the spoils that lift them back up to second in the table.
They didn’t look particularly clinical early on as three opportunities came to nothing.
Firstly, captain Jack Lee, on the last tackle, saw a chink of light from dummy-half but was wrapped up.
Then some great hands gave George Elliott a chance but, despite getting over the line, he did not get low enough and the defence lifted him back in play. Elliott had another chance but lost the ball when trying to reach over the whitewash.
The visitors’ next chance was, however, snaffled.
James Morland and Ed Smith came up with a try-saver on Matty Beharrell at one end, and their effort was rewarded as York quickly worked their way upfield and, following a penalty for holding down, Lee Paterson sent in Jonny Presley to open the scoring.
Benn Hardcastle added the first of his five conversions – that 100 per cent success rate against his former club proving crucial in the final analysis.
After another penalty, Lee sniffed another chance from dummy-half and this time the defence could not stop him.
Even at 12-0 down, however, Thunder did not look out of it.
They had lost Sam Lynch in the warm-up – the full-back was always a doubt – but Sam Bowering was a more-than-able replacement in the back line.
Ex-Knights Paul Stamp, Rhys Clarke and Matty Barron were all back after injury, too.
Bossed by Stanley Gene on secondment from Hull KR, Thunder were also able to field three dual-reg players from the New Craven Park outfit – half-back Beharrell, second-row Sonny Esslemont and loose-forward Aaron Ollett.
York, conversely, had none from their partner club, Castleford, the Tigers wanting all hands on their own deck for the busy Easter period in Super League.
But they did have James Saltonstall, the Italy international threequarter, making an excellent debut on loan from Warrington – he looks an exciting prospect.
Also on debut were sub forwards Nathan Harper and Ryan Backhouse, now a fully-fledged Knight after he aborted his move to Australia.
James Haynes, who had a spell with Gateshead last year, George Elliott, teenager Morland and fit-again Jake Joynt were all reinstated in the much-changed line-up.
York needed full-back Haynes to just about halt a rampaging Jason Payne after Bowering had streaked upfield. But the hosts were soon back in it at 12-6, Barron stretching over following a penalty, Carl Puckering converting.
York took advantage of a forward pass in the next set, though. Two quick, long passes from the scrum, the second from Saltonstall, gave Ben Dent the ball and the winger scythed through on the angle expertly.
The next time they tried to get the ball to Dent quickly, it backfired.
Haynes caught a kick and, spotting space down the left wing, tried to get the ball out of the tackle to Dent. However, home winger Tom Capper snatched the ball from Dent’s grasp and sprinted 15 yards home.
Pat Smith, on for Lee, got York back on track with a superb solo try to make it 24-10 at half-time.
Four minutes after the restart, brother Ed Smith was scoring, sidestepping the full-back after collecting a Presley kick.
But Gatesead made sure it was far from game over.
Jason Payne struck back, Beharrell goaling, and the hosts could have done so again but for Haynes – bravely stopping a raiding Bowering and then scooping up a dangerous kick and getting York back on the front foot.
Then came the sin-binning. Smith chased his own chip and, after it went dead, he kicked the ball a few feet forward. Referee Chris Kendall deemed it a professional foul for preventing a quick 20-metre restart and showed the yellow card.
York got through those ten minutes well but Thunder stayed in the ascendancy.
Payne crashed over again, after another penalty, and Jacob Blades streaked home after a great break by Esselmont, Beharrell’s goal making it 30-26 with seven minutes left.
Home centre Chris Heil was sin-binned late on for speaking out of turn but Gateshead got one last chance after a cheap penalty. However, to the travelling faithful’s relief, George Elliott diffused a kick to the corner and the Knights held on.
Gateshead: Blades, Bowering, Heil, Brown, Capper, Beharrell, Puckering, T Lynch, Hough, Barron, Esselmont, Payne, Ollett. Subs (all used): Stamp, Clarke, Fewlass, Stoker.
Tries: Barron 22; Capper 34; Payne 49, 67; Blades 73.
Conversions: Puckering 22, 73; Beharrell 49.
Sent off: none.
Sin-binned: Heil 77.
Knights: Haynes 8, Elliott 7, Saltonstall 8, Morland 7, B Dent 6, B Hardcastle 6, Presley 7, Joynt 6, Lee 7, Aldous 8, Mallinder 6, E Smith 7, Paterson 6. Subs (all used): P Smith 7, Freer 6, Harper 6, Backhouse 6.
Tries: Presley 10; Lee 15; Dent 25; P Smith 38; E Smith 44.
Conversions: B Hardcastle 10, 15, 25, 38, 44.
Sent off: none.
Sin-binned: P Smith 55.
Man of the match: James Haynes – the full-back at times was everywhere. He pulled off brave tackles as last man and showed all his old punch with the ball in hand to get his side on the front foot.
Referee: Chris Kendall (Huddersfield) – pretty good, although Pat Smith’s sin-bin was very soft.
Attendance: 400 estimate.
Weather: good weather for rugby league.
Moment of the match: Pat Smith’s try, which was a timely boost for York just before half-time. The replacement hooker dummied and darted to make 15 yards. He seemed to be held up but wriggled out the other side. He seemed to he held up again five metres short of the whitewash but popped out the other side again to touch down.
Gaffe of the match: Gateshead were on a roll, pulling back to 30-26 with seven minutes left, and York really needed to get possession and slow things down. Ben Dent, however, could not hold a kick when sliding on the ground, inviting more pressure on his own line. Thankfully, it was not costly.
Gamebreaker: Gateshead had the upper hand, scoring a try to come back to 30-16 and then seeing York’s Pat Smith sin-binned. But the Knights negotiated those ten minutes a man down and that was crucial given the ten points that did follow for the hosts.
Match rating: a good game in decent conditions – but what a nervy end.