THESE expansion clubs are starting to give York City Knights a serious headache.
They are supposed to be the whipping boys of Championship One, but Hemel Stags were only 12 minutes from repeating what Oxford had done to Gary Thornton’s boys on home soil a couple of weeks earlier – beating them.
Stags came to Huntington Stadium with some pedigree, having won three games and drawn with big guns Oldham.
Their approach was hugely predictable – give the ball to twin tanks James Howitt and Eddie Mbaraga and try and punch a hole in the Knights’ defence.
They slowed down possession to a standstill too, and tried to frustrate York into making simple minded errors.
But, for a lot of the game, it worked.
The Knights spurned a succession of promising positions, blighted by careless handling errors, silly penalties and, at times, mere stupidity.
But Stags’ one dimensional approach meant the visitors could never establish anything more than a six point lead and, in the end, two quick tries in each half – both sets scored in three minutes – was enough to see the Knights home.
Ben Dent and Lee Paterson scored to give York an improbable 10-6 half-time lead after they looked like they were going into the break trailing and Dent again, followed by his brother Adam, made sure York kept pace with Hunslet at the top of the table with late second half tries.
Thornton later described his side as having “limped “over the line. He could not have chosen a more appropriate word.
From the start they found it hard to keep hold of the ball in greasy conditions following a heavy rain shower about 90 minutes before kick off.
Player coach James Ford had stressed before the game the need for York to play fast but it seemed they were going too quickly even for themselves.
Hemel edged into the contest and then struck on the counter-attack scoring after the Knights spurned a great chance on 17 minutes.
Jack Pickles dropped the ball when well advanced and, immediately, BJ Swindells streaked up the wing before feeding supporting centre Michael Brown to run home down the left touchline from 30 metres.
That should have shocked the Knights into action but, time and time again, they made inroads into the Stags half before sloppy giving up the ball. There was little cohesion to their play.
Hemel’s tactics were soon clear. On 33 minutes, York were penalised ten metres out but, rather than look to run the ball for another try, Swindells booted over a penalty.
It was negativity that gave the Knights hope and, three minutes before the break, centre James Saltonstall – one of the few home players to show repeated menace with the ball in hand – broke clear.
He looked to be going in himself but showed great awareness when, just as James Hall got his arms around him to make a tackle, he flicked a pass off his left shoulder to the supporting Ben Dent to score.
Benn Hardcastle missed the difficult conversion from the left touchline but it mattered little when, in stoppage time, the Knights got a penalty and repeatedly worked a set of tackles.
The only time they had really used the ball in the opening 40 minutes, James Ford started a move which allowed Paterson to use his strength to touch down as the hooter sounded.
Any thoughts that this would galvanise Thornton’s men were soon dispelled upon the resumption. The handling errors continued, referee Chris Kendall played his own tune with his whistle and Hemel regained the lead.
It was an impressive piece of skill. Evan Simons threw a dummy so outrageous it had most of the crowd, and not just the York players, looking for a pass.
He hurled his arms left and then darted back to his right, driving over for the try and ending Nathan Freer’s afternoon – a collision forcing him staggering from the pitch.
Swindells then booted over another penalty, after Ford was penalised for obstruction on 58 minutes, and Hemel led 14-10.
The score stayed that way for ten agonising minutes but, as the nerves of the Knights supporters became increasingly frayed, York finally put another passage of play together.
Ben Dent netted his brace, Paterson astutely reacting to a ridiculous knock-on from the visitors right on their own line to grab possession and Ben Reynolds floating a long, but accurate, pass left to the waiting winger who made no mistake.
Three minutes later, his brother Adam got in on the act – finishing a move that saw Presley, Ryan Mallinder and Jack Lee go through the phases before Saltonstall found the right winger with a pass he couldn’t fail to convert.
It wasn’t pretty and Thornton admitted afterwards his men would have to improve. At least this time, though, in stark comparison to the Oxford game, they got the victory.
Knights: Ben Reynolds, Adam Dent, James Saltonstall, Greg Minikin, Ben Dent, Benn Hardcastle, Jonny Presley, Jack Pickles, Jack Lee, Jack Aldous, Ryan Mallinder, Ed Smith, Lee Paterson. Subs (all used): Pat Smith, James Ford, Nathan Freer, Jake Joynt.
Tries: Ben Dent 37, 69; Paterson 40; Adam Dent 72.
Conversions: Hardcastle 40, Reynolds 69, 72.
Stags: James Cameron, James Hill, Michael Brown, Aaron Small, Jimmy Morgan, Jymel Coleman, Ben Young, James Howitt, Evan Simons, Dan Ljazouli, BJ Swindells, Chris Clough, Alex Ingarfield. Subs (all used): Eddie Mbaraga, Ben Kavanagh, Matt Bailey, Malalchi Lloyd-Jones.
Tries: Brown 13, Simons 47.
Conversions: Swindells 47.
Penalties: Swindells 33, 58.
Man of the match: James Saltonstall – great breaks from his own half and set up two of the Knights’ tries.
Referee: Chris Kendall - could do with a refresher on the offside law and how to let a game of rugby league flow.
Penalties: Knights 10, Stags 15.
Weather: Breezy but sunny.
Moment of the match: Saltonstall’s break from his own half was impressive enough but his off the shoulder pass, as James Hill closed in, to set up Ben Dent to score was superb.
Gamebreaker: Adam Dent’s try in the corner broke Hemel hearts.
Gaffe of the match: Referee Chris Kendall’s whistle-happy performance throughout meant there was no flow to the game and ruined it.
Match rating: The Knights won. That’s about all you can say for the game.