GARETH GALE stole the headlines to run in a quartet of tries as York Knights failed in their quest to become the first team to take points off Betfred Championship leaders Featherstone Rovers at Summer Bash.

Some 3,793 spectators tuned into today’s showpiece event at the LNER Community Stadium, with a classy Featherstone side in complete control of proceedings in a match which wholly justified their unbeaten start to the season that has seen them claim 12 victories from as many games.

Nonetheless, it was a spirited performance from the Knights who never gave up despite the gulf in quality between the sides, with Jesse Dee, Josh Daley and Joe Brown all crossing the whitewash.

There are plenty of positives that Andrew Henderson can take from a Knights display that was a definite improvement from their 46-4 defeat at the Millennium Stadium in March – especially for a side with eight players sidelined through injury.

Henderson was forced into two changes from the Knights team that booked their spot in the Betfred Challenge Cup Quarter Finals last weekend, with experienced pair Danny Kirmond and Jordan Thompson both injured in their 36-12 rout of London Broncos – the latter of whom is expected to be out for some time with a foot injury sustained in the act of scoring his second-half try.

Jon Luke Kirby and Conor Fitzsimmons, making his first appearance since April 7, instead began as York’s starting props, with last weekend’s Man of the Match Ronan Michael moved to loose forward.

Featherstone were without influential 21-year-old half-back Riley Dean, whose kicks had run the Knights ragged in March, after he was recalled by parent club Warrington Wolves, but fielded a squad packed with Betfred Super League quality, not least the red-hot Gale, who tonight took his season tally to 17.

Featherstone’s start was characteristic of their position as the unbeaten league leaders, with York’s backs placed firmly against the wall from the outset.

The Knights made their first error of the match in just the second tackle set, and though Olly Butterworth, keeping his start after a well-taken hat-trick last week, was wise to the resultant grubber from former Leigh Leopards full-back Caleb Aekins, it was a sign of things to come.

James Cunningham left referee Scott Mikalauskas with a decision to make with eight minutes gone after a big hit on Jack Bussey saw the loose forward sent down the tunnel for a head injury assessment, but despite being penned within 10 metres of the try line, York were able to survive.

However, the Knights’ tenacious defence was broken for the first time in the 12th minute, Gale duly punishing some lacklustre defending to collect a cut-out pass from former Toulouse Olympique half-back Jonathon Ford and stroll into the left corner.

York were reduced to 12 men seven minutes later when Fitzsimmons was sin-binned for his part in a fracas on the Knights’ 30 metre line, with Featherstone capitalising on their numerical advantage as prop Gad-win Springer muscled his way underneath the posts – with the boot of loose forward Dan Smith firing his side into a 10-0 advantage.

With the wind clearly in Featherstone sails, a momentary lapse saw the Knights then bring themselves back into the arm wrestle, taking advantage of a forward pass on the 30-metre line to spread the play, with captain Chris Clarkson sending Dee over the whitewash for his second score in as many games on his return from injury.

Daley wised to Featherstone’s desire to find Gale, wrestling the tricky winger into touch before Butterworth drove forward tremendously with the ball to the 20-metre line, but it was the West Yorkshire outfit who would find themselves further in front in controversial fashion.

The Knights looked to have successfully shepherded a grubber out of play, but the officials deemed McKenzie Yeiketepa to have grounded the loose ball in-goal, much to the frustration of everybody with a York persuasion.

To add further insult to injury for York, Bussey returned to the field to give Featherstone a 16-4 advantage at the interval.

Featherstone needed eight minutes to extend their advantage after the interval, breaking forward with pace through former Wigan Warriors centre Chris Hankinson, whose simple offload was sublimely finished by Gale with an acrobatic finish into the far corner.

Such was York’s stubbornness, the Featherstone attack that had been so potent in the first half was less so after the interval, but their opponents were still at their clinical best.

Gale completed a second consecutive hat-trick against York on the half-hour mark after Cunningham had failed to gather a kick on the 20-metre line, before half-back Tom Lancas broke though the York defence, playing in hooker Connor Jones to mark his cameo off the bench with a try two minutes later.

Ford completed Featherstone’s hat-trick of tries as the devastating seven-minute spell continued with a delightful dummy after Aekins had run almost the entire length of the pitch, but despite falling to a 32-point deficit, York refused to give up.

Henderson’s side had their just reward 10 minutes from time with a moment of genius as Daley, who is continuing to impress in the halves, chipped a teasing grubber over the Featherstone defence, with Brown hardly able to believe his luck as he was given the freedom of 10 metres to stroll across the line.

York saw their defence breached for an eighth time four minutes from time as Lacans dummied past two defenders before crashing over into the right corner, setting the tone for a frantic conclusion.

Daley marked his Man of the Match performance with a try from the restart after collecting Will Jubb’s cut-out pass before bouncing off a defender and muscling his way over the line but it was to be Featherstone who would have the last word on the hooter.

A high kick was dropped by AJ Towse on the 20-metre line, with Gale crossing for his fourth of the evening with 30 seconds left to play, before Bussey added the extras for the fourth and final time.

Things will seldom be any easier for York against high-fliers Batley Bulldogs next weekend, as they begin a month which sees them also face off against Sheffield Eagles and Featherstone.

FEATHERSTONE ROVERS: Aekins, Briscoe, Hardcastle, Hankinson, Gale, Ford, Lacans, Kopczak, Wildie, Springer, Day, Bussey, Smith.

INTERCHANGES: Jones, Davies, Moors, Yeiketepa, Hall.

TRIES: Gale (12, 48, 60, 80), Springer (20), Yeiketepa (36), Jones (62), Ford (67), Lacans (75)

GOALS: Smith 2/2, Bussey 4/7

YORK KNIGHTS: Brown, Towse, Glover, Dee, Butterworth, Cunningham, Daley, Kirby, Field, Clarkson, Michael.

INTERCHANGES: Harrison, Teanby, Ta’ai, Barnard, Price.

TRIES: Dee (27), Brown (70), Daley (77)

GOALS: Glover 2/3

YELLOW CARDS: Fitzsimmons (19)

POINTS SEQUENCE: 4-0, 8-0, 10-0, 10-4, 14-4, 16-4, 20-4, 24-4, 28-4, 30-4, 34-4, 36-4, 36-8, 36-10, 40-10, 40-14, 40-16, 44-16, 46-16.


YORK’S STAR MAN: Josh Daley. A try and an assist for the Australian hooker, who is continuing to flourish out of position alongside James Cunningham in the halves.

REFEREE: Scott Mikalauskas