York City Knights 4, Featherstone Rovers 30

YORK City Knights’ remarkable season had to end at some point and so it did with a 30-4 defeat to old rivals Featherstone Rovers in the play-off quarter-finals.

The finished above Rovers in the Betfred Championship table – their third-placed ranking being an outstanding achievement for a club with one of the smallest budgets in the competition and a side tipped for a relegation scrap at the start of term.

But Featherstone, with two wins to one between the sides this campaign, had the edge in the head-to-heads and they came out on top again here.

Two penalties gave York the lead but Fev built an 8-4 interval advantage and two quickfire tries in the third quarter effectively took the game away.

The home fans on another fun-filled day at Bootham Crescent sung their hearts out even at that point – but there was to be no breathtaking finale to an otherwise startling season. Instead, two late tries sealed Rovers’ progress to a semi-final in Toulouse, for the right to meet huge favourites Toronto in the Grand Final.

Anyway, forget that. This has still been York’s season. James Ford should still, without question, be named Coach of the Year on Tuesday night.

Not only were the Sky cameras here but also, for the first time during the Knights’ stay at Bootham Crescent, all four stands were open. That in itself underlines just how far this club have come since the days of plodding around League One.

Indeed, while a push for Super League this season was the stuff of dreams – as it would be for any semi-pro club – who knows where this outfit could end up at this current rate of progress?

Certainly Super League could do with a city of this style in its mix.

The Knights were given boosts pre-match with Will Oakes, Jason Bass, Perry Whiteley, Liam Salter and Graeme Horne all passing fit. Well, fit might not be the right word for some of them – Salter, for one, playing with broken ribs in a remarkable show of courage.

Bass and Whiteley duly returned to the back line and the talismanic Horne to the pack ranks.

There was a major surprise, too, with the veteran Andy Ellis, who came out of retirement to ease an injury crisis for a couple of weeks earlier in the season, again getting a call to play as interchange hooker, given the absences of the much-missed Kriss Brining and Harry Carter, and given it would have been hard on the ever-willing Will Jubb to do another 80 minutes after his efforts in defeat under the hot Toulouse sun last week.

Of those who played in France, Matt Chilton, the sole try-scorer last week, Mike Kelly, Josh Jordan-Roberts and Jack Blagbrough were the ones to make way.

Featherstone, who came through a big test at Leigh with flying colours in their opening play-off, had all their big hitters, and they all played their part again here in a high-quality game.

They were given an immediate fillip as Matty Marsh, usually so reliable, misjudged the kick-off, which bounced just in play before going dead.

The full-back made immediate amends, though, with a try-saver on Brad Day when the visitors broke the line, and he went on to have an excellent display.

York got into the game but three back-to-back penalties – two very harsh - gave Rovers another huge peg-up, as did a fortunate repeat set from a ricochet. Nevertheless, Connor Jones was held up over the whitewash and the defence held out.

Instead, it was York who went ahead.

Marcus Stock – what a find he has been this season – sent Jack Teanby on the charge with a beautiful ball and, when the prop was held down at the play-the-ball, Connor Robinson kicked the penalty.

Fev still threatened but now it was York’s turn to act.

Marsh ran onto Liam Harris’ clever short kick and dabbed the ball towards the corner, only for Jack Johnson to just beat opposite winger Whiteley to it.

Then Marsh with a great break out of defence thanks to some bizarre knee control under a bomb, set the platform for another attack. Two penalties followed and Robinson made it 4-0 with the second.

A foolish penalty the other way, however, gave Rovers a cheap set in the red zone, and Makehesi Makatoa crashed over. Dane Chisholm’s conversion put the visitors ahead.

They again went close via a Jones scoot through some sleeping marker defence but again Marsh halted him, and then again after a kick amid some terribly broken play so nearly bounced their way.

They did eke up their lead, though, with a 33rd-minute penalty, as referee Ben Thaler began to get on the home fans’ wick.

York had a Sam Scott try rightly ruled out for a knock-on in back play just before the hooter, leaving Fev with a delicate 8-4 interval lead. The second half was a different story, however.

A soft penalty gave Rovers a peg-up on the resumption but Marsh pulled off another try-saver, this time when Conor Carey looked sure to score, and, while offloads kept the attack alive, desperate defence won out.

Next time, however, it did not, as the game got away.

Firstly, half-back Callum McLelland juggled a pass before putting sub James Harrison streaking through a sizeable gap on the angle.

Then tacklers fell off Brad Day as the second-row got through, with Chisholm’s conversions making it 20-4.

The home fans did their best to rally the troops and, let’s be fair, they’ve been treated to plenty battling, comeback, bonkers wins over the past two years. But this time there was no way back.

Their team dug in but Rovers’ defence was watertight. Instead, Johnson caught a kick near his own line and sprinted away for a converted length-of-the-field try, before Jack Render dived into the right corner to rub salt into the wounds. In between times, Salter was withdrawn to save him any more pain as the Knights finished with 12 men.

Nevertheless, the “York and proud of it chant” was loud at the finish, and rightly so – 2019, like 2018 before it, has been an extraordinary season. 2020 has a lot to live up to.

Knights: Marsh 9, Oakes 7, Bass 7, Hey 7, Whiteley 7, Harris 7, Robinson 7, Stock 9, Jubb 8, Teanby 7, Salter 9, Scott 7, Spears 7. Subs (all used): Ellis 7, Horne 7, Dixon 7, Baldwinson 7.

Tries: none.

Conversions: none.

Penalties: Robinson 16, 22 (2/2).

Sin-binned: none.

Sent off: none.

Featherstone: Goldon, Johnson, Hardcastle, Sutcliffe, Carey, McLelland, Chisholm, Makatoa, Jones, Davies, Day, Walters, Lockwood. Subs (all used): Cooper, Harrison, Render, Albert.

Tries: Makatoa 26; Harrison 47; Day 50; Johnson 71; Render 76.

Conversions: Chisholm 26, 47, 50, 71 (4/5).

Penalties: Chisholm 33 (1/1).

Sent off: none.

Sin-binned: none.

Man of the match: Marcus Stock – last year he was playing for minnows Hemel Stags. Now he’s standing out in the Championship play-offs. Liam Salter deserves more than an honorary mention, too, remarkably playing with broken ribs, apparently with the help only of a paracetamol.

Referee: Ben Thaler – decent enough.

Penalty count: 8-6.

Attendance: 3,222.