Hornets 40 - Skolars 16
It's the games you least expect to excite and inspire that prove that Rugby League never loses its power to surprise. On paper, a hastily rearranged dead rubber against a team from the other end of the country on a freezing Easter Monday sounds like one for the purists. But this game had plenty up its sleeve to admire and enjoy
Skolars came to Spotland on the back of a) a flawless NRC record in Pool A and b) an embarrassing home thumping by Hemel Stags on Friday. Despite this contradictory form, you know what you're going to get from Joe Mbu's side. Of their last two or three visits to Spotland, Skolars have been the ugliest team we've played all season.
During the opening exchanges their… er… 'gritty' approach worked a treat - creating a slow, scrappy environment in which Hornets strove to play what little football was on offer. But, rather than get sucked into an ugly war of attrition, Hornets went looking for space - and, once dragged into the open, Skolars were on the back foot.
On 12 minutes, fullback Gaz Langley's arcing run created the extra man off the back of a scrum, and when the ball reached him, he continued to loop across the field, stepping neatly inside to open the scoring.
Hornets continued to press and try to play expansive football, but a series of mistimed passes and dropped balls early in the tackle count made for a scrappy period of the game.
As it was, the home fans had to wait until the 21st minute for the backline to fully click: debutant Dave Llewellyn on the end of a flowing passing move to score a slick, fluid try on the right. Chris Baines hit the post with his conversion attempt.
Just two minutes later, Baines found Martin Waring in space on the left flank with a peach of a pass; Waring showing great pace and balance from 40 metres to score. This time Baines adding the two. 14-0 to Hornets.
Hornets fans had barely finished applauding when some great approach work up the right saw Barry Clark showing great strength to spin out of a covering tackle and force his way over to give Hornets an 18-nil lead.
With half an hour gone, Skolars only real contribution to the game had been a willingness to dump bodies into every tackle with the sole intention of slowing the game to a standstill. As a consequence, every time Hornets took the ball into space, they looked compelled to find an extra pass - even when there was no real opportunity. Skolars gladly took the respite of such cheap possession and - from nowhere - conjured up two quickfire tries.
Firstly McClean jinked away from a stretched defence to score, followed four minutes later by a blind side raid through a napping defence where Bloom outpaced the cover and score. McClean added the extras and Skolars - despite being spectators for over half an hour - were back within touching distance at 18-10.
On the last play of the half Skolars reverted to type conceding a dumb penalty for lying-on: Baines took the two and Hornets went into the break 20-10 up.
The first score of the second half was critical to seize the game's momentum. It duly arrived after just 2 minutes as Hornets showed good hands up the right channel.
Initially over-thinking the approach, a try went begging when it looked easier for Langley to score. As it was Dave Llewellyn straightened up the attack to grab his second.
Hornets went back on the attack immediately. Great hands right-to left stretched the Skolars' defence and when the ball found its way to Lewis Sheridan, he hit the afterburners to leave the visitors' defence flapping at shadows. Launching himself from 60 metres Sheridan showed the cover a clean pair of heels up the touchline to score the try of the day. Baines added the two.
Skolars only hope of preventing a cricket score was to grind the game to a halt. For close on 20 minutes they spoiled and sprawled. And with the ball in hand looked increasingly unlikely to cause Hornets any real problems. Their only real threat came when Benji Lloyd made a king-sized dog's dinner of a completely aimless last-tackle panic hoof downfield, but the Londoners couldn't capitalise on the opportunity.
With both sides now struggling to complete (and we beieve there really are some questions to be asked about how the new Rhino ball contributes to some of the handling issues we've seen this season), the game needed a catalyst to spark it back into life.
It came on 67 minutes when a break through the middle of the park by Benji Lloyd was brought to an abrupt end by a clear trip. Referee Cobb considered his options and put the offence on report. Hornets' response was to shift the ball wide to Martin Waring who planted the ball by the flag.
On the next foray into the Skolars half, a surging break from Chris Hough prised the defence apart and good hands gave Dave Hull enough space to duck in from close range. Gareth Langley took over kicking duties and neatly added the two. 40-10 and the job done.
With five minutes remaining, Skolars did find one moment of lucid football, Kolasa on the end of a smart passing move, with McClean adding the extras. Final score 40-16.
Despite its status as a 'dead rubber', this was an entertaining and competitive game. Ian Talbot rotated his squad and gave over a dozen players an opportunity to play themselves into contention for a regular first team berth - and most gave a good account of themselves.
Wingers Clark and Waring took their tries well, and centre Llewellyn made an assured debut. Up front, prop Carl Forster terrorised the Skolars pack all afternoon, sucking in defenders, eating up the hard yards and providing an endless supply of second-phase ball. His little drop-off out of the back of the tackle late-on was sublimely precocious. And keep your eye on Lewis Sheridan this season. His tenacity belies his size and his turn of pace for his try was excitingly impressive.
So, once again, a 'pointless' NRC game provides some real optimism for the season and shows that we have some real talent at the club. And with two wins from two over Easter, Hornets can take great pride in a job well done.