“IT was never in doubt!”
So declared Gary Thornton, tongue in cheek, after watching his York City Knights side score two converted tries in the last five minutes to win 20-18 at Hunslet and all but secure the Championship One league leaders’ crown.
The late revival – thanks to tries by James Saltonstall and Colton Roche – also meant the Knights beat their arch-rivals for a third time this season and set a new club record of nine successive wins.
“Obviously we were a bit nervous. It was three consecutive errors from us that helped them get a grip of the game and score a couple of tries,” said Thornton.
“We got the message out to calm down and keep completing sets as I was confident if we could get field position that we'd score again.
“There was that five or ten-minute spell when they got a stranglehold on the game but we showed terrific spirit to come back and win it.”
The build-up to the top-of-the-table clash had been dominated by Hunslet’s late-season recruitment, the most notable signing being Super League star Richard Moore on his release from Wakefield and prior to his reported move to Bradford next season. Hunslet will also have former Knights favourite Luke Hardcastle for the play-offs on his return from Australia.
Thornton said: “I said to the boys I don’t think I’d swap any of their players for any of ours.
“They were very tough conditions to play rugby league in (with a strong wind and showers). I thought we handled it a little better than them. To a man, we were brilliant.
“Gateshead tried it on us last week – putting two Super League players (on dual-reg from Hull KR) in their front row - and Hunslet tried it with Richard Moore, who’s still a Super League player in my eyes. But our pack handled it again.
“Jack Aldous did another 70 minutes – what else can we say about him? – and Brad Brennan and Colton Roche were very good again. We took it to them up the middle.
“Ryan Backhouse (sub second-row) was superb and that left edge. When he came on he made such an impact.”
The reward for topping the table is a home semi-final in the play-offs, and, if they don’t win that, a second bite of the cherry for a place in the grand final. Only the grand final winners go up.
The Knights still need a point in their last game of the regular season at home to London Skolars in three weeks to make mathematically certain of top spot, otherwise Oldham could draw level on points, albeit with a probably insurmountable points-difference deficit to make up.
"It’s still important, make no bones about it,” Thornton said of finishing top. “I still think there's honour in finishing top of the tree.
"The goal has always been to win the play-offs - we know it's all about the grand final. But there is satisfaction in knowing we've been the best team in the competition.
"We're on a nine-game winning run and in a fantastic position, and we want to finish the job.
“We’ve got a favourable run now, but we know the play-offs are something different. It can all be on one game and, as Hunslet showed, they took us close. We’ve got to get the league out of the way and then consider knockout football. It’s one step at a time.
“We have to enjoy this moment as not many people play in a league-winning team, but we have to keep our feet on the ground.”
Referee Chris Kendall came in for stick from Hunslet fans who felt his calls kick-started the Knights’ fightback. Ex-Knight David March was also sin-binned in between York’s two late tries for dissent. The Hawks had earlier lost hooker Liam Hood to a broken hand and half-back Danny Grimshaw to a torn bicep.
Boss Barry Eaton said: “If he (March) said something out of turn, the referee has the right to sin-bin him - but you have to ask the question why it got to that.”
As for the game, he said: “We lost a couple of key players and in the end lost the game. The play-offs are where it matters.”