WHEN York City Knights last won the third tier title, the then National League Two in 2005, they did so courtesy of a momentous comeback at South Leeds Stadium.
Here they virtually made sure of top spot in Championship One by doing the same – stealing victory over arch-foes Hunslet when all appeared lost.
Two tries in the last five minutes did it this time, both converted by arguably the biggest hero behind the victory, James Haynes, to make it 20-18.
It sparked celebrations from the travelling army, although the revelry was much muted compared to 2005, given that the job, this time, is far from done. They'll have to repeat triumphs like this in the play-offs to secure this year’s real prize.
Nevertheless, when doubt could have crept in that Hunslet, bolstered by notable late-season recruitment, would go into the play-offs as top dogs, Gary Thornton’s men still came up trumps – taking their winning run to a club record nine games and making it three out of three over the Hawks this year.
Perhaps most importantly, it gave them a home semi-final in the play-offs and two chances to reach the final – the reward for finishing top.
York had been 22-0 behind on that memorable day in 2005, so this fightback was not as big, but having fallen 18-8 down with 68 minutes gone, with Hunslet on a roll, few Knights followers expected to be celebrating again on their arch-rivals’ patch. If anything, their side were hanging on for a bonus point.
But out of nowhere – or rather a piece of magic from Greg Minikin – James Saltonstall gave them renewed life, topped off by a yellow card for Hunslet hooker David March for saying something to the referee.
Then in the last minute of the 80, Colton Roche charged over for the winner.
York still had to negotiate four minutes of stoppage time but did so and now a point at home to London Skolars in three weeks will confirm them as league winners. Even then, Oldham are now the only team who can catch them and to do so must overhaul a points-difference deficit of 161 in two games.
Head coach Thornton had been forced into two changes - as expected - caused by Castleford recalling dual-reg aces Ben Reynolds and Brad Day for their game at Warrington on Friday, Tigers boss Daryl Powell fielding a much-changed team ahead of next week’s Challenge Cup final.
Jonny Presley came in at half-back for the first time since York’s last defeat - at Gloucestershire on June 8 - while fit-again veteran James Ford was back at centre.
Thornton made further alterations. Minikin, the highly-rated centre who has endured an injury-hit campaign, was fit again after his latest four games out and replaced the unlucky Tyler Craig, while, in the back row, Ryan Mallinder returned after a week's injury absence, Ryan Backhouse dropping to the bench, Jay Leary omitted. Minikin, on this showing, is a shoo-in if fit. Backhouse was a constant danger on his introduction.
Thornton was spared perhaps his most crucial selection decision, though, as Haynes, concussed last week, finally passed his head test on Friday night, meaning he took not only his place at full-back but also key goalkicking duties from Reynolds.
On top of that, he played superbly well, regularly getting his back-pedalling side on the front foot – and all despite suffering suspected broken ribs in his first hit-up. Here’s hoping he can continue to play through the pain in the play-offs.
Hunslet made plentiful changes as predicted, with Richard Moore - released by Wakefield this week and turning down a temporary switch to York - joining fellow new boys James Duckworth, Luke Briscoe and Ross Peltier in the 17. Moore was a threat throughout with his offloads, and Peltier with his size.
Big Michael Haley and Salford-bound hooker Liam Hood were also fit again to take their places in arguably the Hawks’ strongest side. However, both Hood (broken hand) and Danny Grimshaw (torn bicep) departed injured and are doubts for the play-offs.
Hood had broken the deadlock after 32 minutes of attrition. Sub prop Peltier drove forward and Hood, showing why he’s wanted in Super League, saw a chink of light. Thomas Coyle goaled.
Hunslet had had the wind in the first period but when York equalised on half-time, it was they who went into the changing rooms in higher spirits. Backhouse, with a sidestep, half-break and offload, sent James Ford home, Haynes goaling.
A high tackle by Moore on Pat Smith – one of several decisions bemoaned by home fans – saw Haynes edge York ahead with a two-pointer midway through the second half.
However, nerves crept in and handling errors by Pat Smith, Minikin and Ben Dent helped Hunslet forge their lead – March smartly sending in Moore, before half-back Coyle, barracked all day by home supporters, stopped misfiring to score a solo try. March converted both.
But it was then Hunslet’s turn to make errors, and York were also aided by a couple of refereeing calls.
Minikin cleaned up a loose ball, made ground and gave Saltonstall a chance the workaholic winger took, before Roche - and Haynes - had the last say.
Hunslet: Watson, Duffy, Brickwood, Maun, Duckworth, Grimshaw, T Coyle, Moore, March, Haley, Briscoe, Oakes, Mackay. Subs (all used): Hood, Kain, Broughton, Peltier.
Tries: Hood 32; Moore 64; Coyle 68.
Conversions: Coyle 32; March 64, 68.
Sin-binned: March 75.
Knights: Haynes 9, Saltonstall 8, Ford 7, Minikin 8, B Dent 6, P Smith 6, Presley 6, Roche 7, Lee 7, Aldous 8, Mallinder 7, E Smith 7, Paterson 7. Subs (all used): Brining 6, Brennan 8, Tonks 7, Backhouse 8.
Tries: Ford 40; Saltonstall 75; Roche 79.
Conversions: Haynes 40.
Penalties: Haynes 59.
Man of the match: James Haynes.
Workaholic winger James Saltonstall, barnstorming prop Brad Brennan, rampaging second-row Ryan Backhouse were all excellent throughout, but James Haynes gets the nod for being similarly superb throughout – while playing virtually the entire game with suspected broken ribs.
Referee: Chris Kendal (Huddersfield) – apart from a skinny ten metres for offsides, he couldn’t be faulted in the first hour. Hunslet fans were angry in the last quarter, though video evidence may suggest he got most decisions right.
Penalty count: 3-8.
Weather: cold, with showers then sun, and a very strong wind which made life difficult, especially for half-backs.
Gaffe of the match: Handling mistakes by Greg Minikin and Ben Dent led directly to Hunslet’s two second-half tries that put them clear, but the most bizarre gaffe was before that, when Pat Smith, in a great position near the Hunslet posts, seemingly ignored Jack Lee’s play-the-ball – he was apparently taken aback by the quickness of it while organising team-mates – and stood motionless as the Hawks swooped on the ball.
Moment of the match: James Saltonstall’s late try to virtually secure an important bonus point was topped by Colton Roche’s late late try to win it. And those scenes were possibly topped when the watching Ben Reynolds – unable to play after being called up by parent club Castleford on Friday – went on at the final hooter to congratulate his Knights team-mates and was duly mobbed.
Gamebreaker: Colton Roche’s late winner.
Match rating: the weather was very October-like but will this be a dress rehearsal for the Championship One grand final that month? Oldham and Gateshead might have something to say about that, but it’d be a brave man to bet against it.