Hornets 29 - Thunder 22
Ignore the scoreline. The facts hide the truth that this was a game in which Hornets were comfortably in control, but in which a combination of factors contrived to keep a vastly improved Gateshead in close contention.
With only two conversions from six attempts and a series of bombed tries midway through the second half, Hornets should have been out of sight by the hour mark, but Gateshead gratefully accepted their series of 'get out of jail free' cards and made Hornets work hard for the win.
Hornets began at lightning pace. Picking up possession deep in Thunder territory, the ball was shipped rapidly to the right where Wayne English made the extra man and he slipped Gareth Langley in by the flag after just 90 seconds.
Hornets repeated the move ten minutes later, with the same outcome, Gaz Langley squeezing into the corner.
Hornets continued to build steady pressure and when Warren Thompson returned a goal-line drop-out with serious intent, Wayne English switched his 'extra-man' trick to the left, sending Martin Waring in for a well-taken try on 22 minutes.
On the next foray into the Gateshead half, Dannies Yates and Davies exchanged passes, unzipping the defence sufficiently for Gaz Langley to grab his hat-trick. 16-nil: no conversions!
Thunder dug deep to find a response and, after Danny Davies fumbled wth the line begging, they marched swiftly upfield to create two quickfire tries of their own. First Heil finding space out wide, followed by Payne running off an Ollett break. Hardcastle added the two and, seemingly out of nowhere, Gateshead found themselves only 16-10 down at the break.
Hornets began the second half with purpose, mixing up the attacking options to put Thunder's defence in ragged retreat. On 50 minutes, Paul Crook took the ball to the gain line with a teasing run, Danny Davies continued the move and he found Danny Yates with space to scamper for the line. Crooky added the two. 22-10.
Two minutes later, Davies and Crook repeated their mesmerising double-act, the last pass finding Gaz Langley on a well-timed inside run towards the posts to score his fourth of the day. Crooky added the two for 28-10
Hornets continued to press, but a tricky break created by Paul Crook and Gaz Langley saw the last pass go to ground; then John Cookson was adjudged to have grounded the ball short as he lunged for the line.
Having ridden their luck, Gateshead fashioned a rare attack. Hardcastle threw the most outrageous of dummies to scoot under the posts untouched. He added the two for good measure and the bonus point was back on the table. But when Danny Yates slotted over a cool 66th minute drop-goal to give Hornets a crucial 13 point cushion, it looked like a done deal.
However, Hornets continued to find new and interesting ways to bomb opportunities where it looked easier to score, and with their line somehow remaining intact, Thunder launched one last foray downfield where Heil stepped away from defenders on 20 metres to send Stamp in for a late, late try. Hardcastle added the two - and at 29-22 , that drop goal took on a whole new, crucial importance - with both sides seemingly hanging on for the hooter.
In the end, this was the most uncomfortable one-sided game you could imagine. Hornets playing plenty of slick, expansive football; Gateshead robust, durable and looking every inch a team that's finally found its feet. But let's not get too downhearted. On any other day, passes would've stuck and you'd be looking at a very different outcome.
And with Oldham coughing up two tries in the last two minutes to concede a draw at Whitebank to the All Golds, it seems both sides will have a little work to do ahead of Thursday's televised A627M El Classico.