THE fine form of second-row stars Ed Smith and Ryan Mallinder has seemingly forced Ben Crane to quit York City Knights.
Smith and Mallinder have been ever-presents in the 17 so far this term, two of only four players to have evaded Gary Thornton's early-season rotation policy, along with skipper Jack Lee and winger Ben Dent. Injury to Jason Golden has also seen the pair start all of the Knights' last six games together.
Meanwhile, Crane's inability to split them up has left him frustrated at his lack of first-team opportunities, and head coach Thornton has confirmed the 21-year-old former Hull and Hull KR junior has asked via text message for a release.
Although the club would like to keep him, he will be allowed to leave assuming he does not have a change of heart. Ironically, it comes in the week Smith has been left struggling with a groin strain which makes him a doubt for the trip to Gloucestershire All Golds a week tomorrow.
Said Thornton: "Ben sent a text saying he wanted to go. We haven't officially released him yet to give him a chance to change his mind but if he feels the same we'll start the release process.
"We might have had a chance to bring him in next week, but it seems he's lost patience with it.
"We've still got several other good options. Colton Roche can go in there and Tyler Craig has been playing very well in the reserves and could come into contention, so we're not badly off at all.
"Ben hasn't had many opportunities so far but that's because of the form Ed and Ryan have been in.
"They've been in great form so I've found it difficult to get him in."
The recent arrivals of Ireland international Roche, last week, and on-loan prop Brad Brennan also knocked goalkicking forward Crane further down the pack pecking order - just as injuries elsewhere in the pack put him in line for a recall.
His one start this term came in the Challenge Cup win over Whitehaven, while he was a substitute in the opening-day defeat of Gloucestershire and shock home defeat to Oxford.
"He was disappointed we brought Brad Brennan in," explained Thornton. "If we had not got Colton Roche, he would have featured and got his chance last week. He just wants first-team football, and that's his choice."
Ash Haynes, a team-mate of Crane in the under-20s last year, has also rejoined the club while Ryan Backhouse has emerged out of the shadows in recent weeks in place of the crocked Lee Paterson.
It seems the second-row partnership of Mallinder and Smith, though, will only be broken by a drop in form or a fitness concern, especially with Thornton now wanting to field a more regular line-up to improve consistency heading towards the business end of the season.
This is the former's first full season in semi-pro rugby league after his successful trial last spring, but the 25-year-old was previously a star man for leading amateur club Sharlston Rovers for several years.
Smith, meanwhile, is still only 21 but already seems part of the fixtures and fittings and Huntington Stadium having come through the ranks and made his first-team debut in 2010.
"Ryan is used to playing 25-30 games a season. He's hardened to it," said Thornton, explaining why the pair have not yet been "rotated".
"For the younger boys stepping up, it's a bit tougher. Ryan's durable, more mature, and is an established player. He's done all his growing and got stronger in the off-season too.
"Ed is only 21 but he's an established Championship player now. He's gone through his apprenticeship and is an established first-teamer.
"He's bulked up in the off-season as well - that's what I wanted him to do to handle the intensity week in week out, and that pre-season work is paying off."
He added: "Jason Golden was in there at the start of the season when we were to rotate, and they've not played 80 minutes in every game. We also can tailor training so there's no burn-out. But with the way they've been playing we can't leave them out."