YORK Knights began the 2024 season in emphatic style with a 114-10 rout of Newcastle Thunder at Kingston Park in the opening match of the AB Sundecks 1895 Cup.

It’s been a tumultuous off-season for the North East side, who withdrew from competition before Keith Christie and his team of volunteers rescued the club from the brink, with their Betfred League One status ratified days before Christmas.

Newcastle head coach Chris Thorman had just three training sessions with his new-look side, but despite the gulf between the teams, the Thunder can be commended for never giving up, even scoring the last try on an afternoon that saw a mammoth 124 points on the scoreboard.

Head coach Andrew Henderson maintained that his side would solely focus on their own performance ahead of their first competitive hit-out since October’s Play-off Eliminator defeat at Bradford Bulls and was left pleased by a performance that saw his side run in 21 tries.

Connor Bailey was the standout on his Knights debut, scoring four times against his former club, with Will Dagger and last season’s top-scorer AJ Towse both scoring hat-tricks.

There were also debut tries for both Nikau Williams, given the nod to partner Liam Harris in the halves, and young talent Harvey Reynolds, who joined the club during the off-season from Hull KR.

Jordan Thompson started alongside Conor Fitzsimmons at prop, with James Cunningham making his first appearance since July at loose forward.

There was however no place for marquee signing Richie Myler due to a hamstring strain, whilst former Thunder prop Ukuma Ta’ai was rested, likely with next Sunday’s final group stage match against promotion hopefuls Wakefield Trinity in mind.

RECAP: Newcastle Thunder 10-114 York Knights

But if the Knights thought that Thunder would simply roll over in their first match since their off-season troubles, they were mistaken, with the hosts taking a shock lead just three minutes into proceedings.

After Thompson uncharacteristically lost the ball as he was tackled on the Knights’ 30-metre line, Tyler Hepple dropped the ball off to Danny White, who barged his way through some poor York try-line defence to put his side in front.

Hepple arrowed the conversion between the posts, but that was the last time that the hosts troubled the scoreboard in a first half in which they were truly dominated thereafter.

Dagger brought the Knights level on the 10-minute mark, giving fans a glimpse of what they can expect from their new full-back with an electric burst of pace, collecting Williams’ pass before strolling across just to the left of the posts.

He notched York’s first conversion of the afternoon with ease, going on to make eight of his 11 attempts in a match that also saw Harris and Williams add extras.

Henderson’s side fired themselves in front for the first time two minutes later, Bailey combining with Brown on the Knights’ right edge to stroll across the whitewash on his return to Kingston Park.

York Press: Joe Brown, back on the wing, scored a quick-fire brace of tries.Joe Brown, back on the wing, scored a quick-fire brace of tries. (Image: Craig Hawkhead)

Brown added his name to the scoresheet after Dagger’s sublime footwork, and he had his second with an acrobatic diving finish into the right corner shortly after, though Dagger was unable to land his conversion from the touchline.

If those two tries had highlighted the expansive style of rugby Henderson hopes his side will bring to the fore in 2024, York’s fifth was a powerful drive characteristic of Thompson, who brushed off both Nathan Rushworth and Harry Lowery to crash over from close range.

Harris fed half-back partner Williams to run beneath the posts unopposed as the flurry of tries continued for the Knights, though they were handed somewhat of a let-off after conceding the game’s only goal-line drop out on the half-hour mark, with Towse seeing out Joe Bradley’s kick on the last.

A set restart allowed York to extend their lead, with Oli Field juggling an instinctive pass from Williams and crossing the whitewash, before he sliced through the Newcastle defence to play in Dagger for his second on the half-time hooter, the full-back giving his side a 40-point lead at the interval.

When Williams let the kick-off slip through his fingers, it looked like being a similarly poor start to the second half for the Knights - who took centre Jimmy Keinhorst off at half-time as a precaution – and they looked to have been dealt an injury blow when Dagger stayed down after a tackle, though he was able to continue.

Jesse Dee brought up the half-century for York after collecting Harris’ bullet pass and diving into the right corner, and he had his second of the afternoon in similar fashion, stepping inside the home defence before crashing over the whitewash.

However, Dagger could not convert that try, nor when Towse continued the scoring run from the restart, crossing into the left corner from his cut-out pass.

The full-back brought up his hat-trick on the hour mark in unusual fashion, taking advantage to storm over from 10 metres after the Newcastle defence had paused in anticipation of a penalty for obstruction, with Harris adding the extras as he took over kicking duties.

Quick hands from Bailey sent Towse across for his second from the restart, with the back-rower then completing his double after neat play between Cunningham and interchange Ata Hingano, introduced from the bench at loose forward.

Youngster Reynolds capped a fine debut with a try after joining Harris in support on the Knights’ right edge, with Williams scoring the first of his six attempts from the tee.

Bailey brought up his hat-trick in a superb show of strength as the game entered its final 10 minutes before Thompson scored a stunning solo effort, winning the foot race to his own kick to score just to the right of the posts.

Fitzsimmons was next to cross for the Knights after Dee’s marauding run on the right edge, with Towse bringing up 100 points after fending off a couple of would-be tacklers before strolling across beneath the posts.

Field played in fellow back-rower Bailey to cross for his fourth of the afternoon, before Harris completed York’s scoring inside the final minute, racing away beneath the posts before kicking the conversion as though it was a drop-goal.

But it was Newcastle who had the last word, profiting from a penalty won within metres of the line to send James Snowdon across into the left corner.

Nonetheless, a rampant start to the new season for Henderson’s side, who will face a tough test when they entertain Wakefield at the LNER Community Stadium next Sunday.

NEWCASTLE THUNDER: J. Bradley, L. Bradley, Birch, White, Snowden, Hepple, Mallinson, Lowery, Bate, Harlow-Stephenson, Burns, Rushworth, Newbound.

INTERCHANGES: Teanby, Santi, Hingano, Reynolds.

TRIES: White (3), Snowden (80)

GOALS: Hepple 1/2

YORK KNIGHTS: Dagger, Brown, Dee, Keinhorst, Towse, Williams, Harris, Thompson, Jubb, Fitzsimmons, Field, Bailey, Cunningham.

INTERCHANGES: Teanby, Santi, Hingano, Reynolds.

TRIES: Dagger (10, 40, 59), Bailey (12, 65, 71, 79), Brown (17, 22), Thompson (25, 73), Williams (28), Field (37), Dee (45, 52) Towse (56, 62, 78), Reynolds (67), Fitzsimmons (75), Harris (80)

GOALS: Dagger 8/11,  Harris 2/4, Williams 5/6

POINTS SEQUENCE: 4-0, 6-0, 6-4, 6-6, 6-10, 6-12, 6-16, 6-18, 6-22, 6-26, 6-28, 6-32, 6-34, 6-38, 6-40, 6-44, 6-46, 6-50, 6-52, 6-56, 6-60, 6-64, 6-66, 6-70, 6-74, 6-78, 6-80, 6-84, 6-86, 6-90, 6-94, 6-96, 6-100, 6-102, 6-106, 6-108, 6-112, 6-114, 10-114.


YORK’S STAR MAN: Connor Bailey. A fantastic debut from the second-rower, who had four tries to show for on afternoon in which he wholly justified his off-season signing.

REFEREE: Brad Millington (Cumbria)