Skolars 32 - Hornets 16
At the best of times there's little edifying about a trip to London Skolars. No-one fancies the trip, no-one likes being there and no-one much fancies the journey home afterwards. And, once again, Hornets fell foul of the Skolars hoodoo as - as is becoming an annual tradition - they saved their worst performance of the season for our trip to the capital's crucible of anti-football.
In our match preview we described the New River Stadium as a '… graveyard of unforced errors, slipshod defence and shocking discipine…' and, in this nightmarish mess of a game, the hardcore travelling fans were subjected to all three as Hornets half-heartedly chased a game they never really looked like they wanted to catch.
Whilst Skolars are no world-beaters, they do know how to suck teams into a sprawling shit-fight on their postage stamp of a pitch and, when your shape and composure are gone, they're happy to play around the wreckage. And so it was in this game book-ended by two frankly depressing passages of play.
After just two minutes Skolars fullback Anthony came into the line as the extra man and Purslow's pass sent him through 30 metres of open field to score. Not a great start. Five minutes later things took a turn for the worse as Skee ran off a Wray pass to slip unhindered through a static defence. 10 minutes, 10 nil.
Struggling to find any fluidity, Hornets finally got forward and when Wayne English was launched towards the line after 15 minutes, a certain try was prevented as Anthony found the wherewithal to rip the ball free as Wayne reached for the whitewash.
Fired up by this, Hornets had their best passage of the game. A carbon-copy double strike from Jordan Case - both through a retreating Skolars right side defence - levelled the scores after 20 minutes. And when Steve Roper sent Danny Davies galloping in three minutes later it looked like Hornets had found their missing mojo - only for referee Crashley to call it back for a forward pass.
But Hornets continued to press, this time it was Dave Hull looking for that gap in the right centre channel, but he was bundled into touch-in-goal.
With the half ebbing away, Hornets had to hold out, get into the sheds and regroup. As it was, the defence switched off allowing hooker Smith to slump in for a one metre sucker-try from acting half to give Skolars a 16-10 lead.
Those hoping for some improvement in the second half were soon gravely disappointed. Almost immediately Hornets conceded a penalty for 'talking' whilst in possession under their own posts. Skee said 'thanks' and banged over the two.
From the resulting kick-off, the home side took advantage of the gusting wind as Skee hoisted a huge 40/20. Two plays after the scrum McClean waltzed through to score. Skee added the two - the 14 point lead now compelling Hornets to scramble for the bonus point.
With the game now a shapeless, penalty-strewn mess, both sides struggled to make headway. After almost 20 minutes of impotent prodding by both sides a dropped pass close to the Hornets line was snaffled by Martin Waring who set off on a mazy 85 metre run through the entire Skolars team to score under the black dot at the other end. Crook added the two and a chink of light for Hornets at 24-16.
As it was, it wasn't sufficient to rouse Hornets from their torpor and when Skee slotted a penalty from half-way in the 75th minute for a high tackle, it was all hands to the pumps to hang-on to the bonus point.
Then - the coup-de grace. The wretched cherry on the top of this dreadful game.
The hooter sounded with Skolars in possession 25 metres from the Hornets line - no real danger; going nowhere. But Hornets allowed the home side to shift the ball laterally through three or four pairs of hands, inviting runners onto them rather than closing them down. With Hornets defence in full retreat the ball was shuttled wide to Price who scored by the flag.
Ladies and gentlemen, the bonus point had left the building…
As Hornets slip to third, a cursory glance at the league table shows just how important bonus points are going to be in deciding who finishes where. Oldham and Oxford have three each; Skolars and Hemel two. In this slightly skewed world of the Kingstone Press Championships three narrow defeats is as good as a win - and letting one get away in such slipshod fashion is about as disappointing as it gets.
In the wash-up, the only positive is that Hornets would struggle to play this badly again. Indeed, every team has one shocker in them - you only have to look at Crusaders' result at Hemel for proof of that. Thankfully, this is one game that will fade quickly from the memory of the few who made the trip - so let's draw a line and move on.