Hemel Stags 22, York City Knights 46
TWO down, two to go.
York City Knights are half-way through their run of four consecutive long away trips, and maximum points so far has brought top spot in Championship One as well as a couple of enjoyable motorway journeys home.
Last week’s win in South Wales was followed by a 46-22 triumph at Hemel today, a result made all the sweeter when news came through of title rivals Hunslet’s home defeat by Gloucestershire All Golds.
Oldham beat Oxford, though, to stay level at the summit with York, but the Knights know if they win their remaining seven league games they will head into the all-important play-offs on top.
Today’s win was built initially on hard graft and, later, skill and fitness.
It also came because Gary Thornton’s team took heed of his pre-match warnings.
Thornton had said his pack faced a tough arm wrestle up the middle, and his brave front row – despite being depleted - not only stayed in the battle early doors but got more on top the longer the game went on.
Stags boss Troy Perkins, meanwhile, had warned of York’s threat on the edges, but his team could not step up to the mark when needed, with the Knights running riot in the second half with five tries in 14 minutes to go clear following a nip-and-tuck first 50 minutes.
The Knights had suffered a blow in the morning as Colton Roche, who was to offer important front-row force at loose-forward, withdrew after a family member was involved in a car crash. They therefore travelled south with only 17 men, Thornton joking he had named himself as 18th man.
Top-scorer Ben Dent – a hat-trick man last week - had already pulled out late due to a foot injury in training, while prop Iain Morrison was back on the sidelines with a bicep tear.
In Dent’s stead came teenage centre Greg Minikin, making a surprise but timely return from an ankle injury, while Tyler Craig, who had been pencilled in as 18th man, kept his place in the 17.
Harry Carter was rested so Kriss Brining reverted to replacement hooker, with centre James Morland and prop Jack Aldous, after his brothers’ wedding, back in the line-up.
Ryan Backhouse stayed in the starting 13 and it was he who opened the scoring, from Pat Smith’s well-timed pass, Ben Reynolds booting his first of seven conversions.
The lead, though, was short-lived, as a penalty conceded by Joe Pickets – for a late challenge on former Knights reserve half-back Jy-Mel Coleman - set the field position for Matt Cook’s equalising try, York’s claims of obstruction ignored by referee Chris Campbell. BJ Swindells added the goal.
Aside that costly penalty, Pickets played a big part in the end result.
York had only three fit props, and that was a concern, especially on such a tight pitch in which much of the inroads would be up the middle, and especially against such big opponents including former Featherstone prop Dom Maloney.
But Ryan Mallinder admirably filled in for a time, moving up from second-row, while Pickets, at loose-forward, provided much of the necessary punch and aggression to unsettle bigger opponents, not least when swapping early big hits with Maloney.
The first half remained close, the sides separated only by a piece of magic by skipper Jack Lee, a weaving, fending solo run which made it 12-6.
Home winger James Hill thought he had struck back but was dismayed to see the touch judge raise his flag for a foot in touch, Minikin the tackler.
The lead increased four minutes into the second half on the back of two penalties - Pat Smith’s grubber rebounded straight to him for an easy finish.
But questionable refereeing got Hemel back into the game.
James Haynes stripped the ball off Matthew Tebb in a one-on-one tackle, only to be penalised – the ref’s excuse being he’d called ‘held’, if prematurely.
Ryan Chester benefited from the piggy-back upfield, Swindells goaling.
York struck again, though, with a well-constructed effort, Ryan Mallinder the finisher - and then the home errors flowed.
A bad mistake close to their line presented York with a scrum from which a short-side move brought an easy finish for Morland.
Then Coleman’s restart went out on the full and, following the penalty, a decent move found more big holes down the Stags’ left side for Ed Smith to streak home.
Another knock-on gave York a scrum from which Minikin capped his return with a super solo try.
Then, after Pickets drove close, Lee twisted in for his second try of the game and 14th in 11 outings, taking him back above Dent in York’s try-scoring charts.
Hemel had the consolation of the game’s best try, Eddie Mbaraga finishing a superb handling move started by Coleman, Cook goaling.
And they also got the last try, having controversially been given a scrum in York’s half, winger Hill getting on the scoresheet.
But the spoils had long been York’s.
Hemel: Cameron, Morgan, Cook, Brown, Hill, Coleman, Mbaraga, Maloney, Simons, Howitt, Pascal, Swindells, Clough. Subs (all used): Herold, Bailey, Chester, Tebb.
Tries: Cook 12; Chester 48; Mbaraga 72; Hill 80.
Conversions: Swindells 12, 48; Cook 72.
Knights: Haynes 7, Minikin 7, Ford 6, Morland 6, Saltonstall 8, Reynolds 7, P Smith 7, Brennan 8, Lee 8, Aldous 7, Backhouse 7, E Smith 8, Pickets 8. Subs (all used): Brining 6, Mallinder 8, Craig 6, Harper 7.
Tries: Backhouse 6; Lee 20, 67; P Smith 44; Mallinder 53; Morland 58; E Smith 60; Minikin 63.
Conversions: Reynolds 6, 20, 44, 53, 60, 63, 67.
Man of the match: Joe Pickets – he gave away a penalty for a late challenge early on, which led to a Hemel try, but his work-rate and big hits played a big part in wearing the Stags down mentally and physically.
Referee: Chris Campbell (Widnes) – another to allow too much lying on. He also made a few debatable decisions, not least when penalising James Haynes for stripping the ball one-on-one, having called ‘held’ early, and when giving Hemel a scrum after York had fumbled in a free play following a home knock-on – both calls leading to Stags tries. He also called a good York pass forward thus denying them a chance of a fine try down the right flank.
Weather: early light showers cleared.
Moment of the match: Greg Minikin announced his return from injury with a fine solo try.
Gaffe of the match: Hemel made a few back-to-back errors in the second half - ex-Knight Chris Clough being involved in one of them to earn barracking by the travelling support - to allow York to go clear on the scoreboard.
Gamebreaker: It seemed pretty close at 18-12 early in the third quarter, but Ryan Mallinder’s touchdown sparked a host of home errors and five Knights tries in 14 minutes.
Match rating: A nip-and-tuck first 50 minutes and a tough arm wrestle turned into a fine win by table-toppers York as their greater skill level and fitness brought another victory.