Hornets 26 - Skolars 24
If you're going to steal a game, you need a cool-headed crook in your side - and in this tight, uncompromising game, Hornets skipper Paul Crook proved the difference - 100% with the boot yet again to steer Hornets to within 80 minutes of a Grand Final.
Skolars set their stall out from the off: gangly prop Williams conceding a penalty for a high-shot in the first tackle of the game. With Skolars ultimately on the wrong end of an 8-1 penalty count (Hornets sole concession a mistimed Gaz Langey tackle on the hour mark), it was a reasonable indicator of what we might expect.
Hornets took full advantage. Off the back of the penalty, determined forward approach play gave Hornets good field position - and when Skolars coughed possession Gaz Langley took Hornets very close to the visitors' line. With the Skolars defence stretched, Jordan Case found a chink to plunge in and open the scoring after just 6 minutes. Crooky added the two.
After its whirlwind opening, the game shrank into an arm-wrestle: Skolars happy to dump bodies in the ruck, crawling and sprawling as referee Hewer allowed them the leeway to slow down the play-the-ball.
Having survived a brief Skolars foray ending in a Hornets penalty after stand-in fullback Gaz Langley was tackled in the air off a Skee bomb, Chris Hough launched an inch perfect 40/20, only for the touch judge to deem it short of the mark. A poor decision. But when Skolars' veteran rake Wray fumbled a play the ball in the 20th minute, Hornets shipped ball swiftly to the right where Dave Sutton launched himself in by the flag for a well-taken try. Crooky with the extras from the touchline.
Skolars finally succumbed to the desire to play some football after Hornets conceded a 25th minute goal-line drop-out, creating two quick-fire tries, firstly from Thomas after Anthony had made the extra man; then from Raynor as Skolars counter-attacked. Skee, one kick from two.
There was still time for Mr Hewer to demonstrate his freestyle interpretation of the laws as, late in the half, Raynor clearly knocked on chasing a lofted kick, Hornets scuffed the bobbling ball dead in expectation of the scrum - only for the referee to award a drop-out. Hornets ended a close-fought half defending in numbers to hold Skolars' wing Paxton up over the line.
Half time 12-10. Tight stuff.
Skolars started the second half in an uncharacteristically flowing mood. Good hands sent Raynor in out wide to grab a 14-12 lead, Skee hoyed a flapping conversion attempt into the Sandy Lane end.
Hornets responded well, grinding the Skolars back upfield where a beautifully weighted flat Steve Roper pass found Chris Baines arriving at pace to score through a scrambing defence. 18-14.
But it was a short-lived lead. Thomas broke the Hornets line and as he stepped inside, Gaz Langley's stretching last ditch tackle was adjudged high and put on report. From the resulting penalty Skolars whipped the ball across the line for Anthony to score. Skee hoofing the conversion attempt well-wide of the mark. 18-all.
Conversely, when Hornets were awarded a penalty five metres inside their own half ten minutes later, Paul Crook pointed to the posts. Cool as you like, the Ginger General stroked the ball between the sticks to uproarious applause to edge Hornets back in front at 20-18 with 15 minutes to play.
Skolars grabbed the lead back with ten minutes remaining when Skee was first to react to a gap by the Hornets' posts - plunging in to score and injuring himself in the process. McClean added the two and, at 20-24, a herculean effort was needed for Hornets to salvage the game.
It's at times like this where teams of character find a way to win and Hornets sucked in for the biggest 10 minutes of the season so far.
Sending in the big guns, the Hornets pack drove the Skolars back under their own posts. John Cookson piled in and looked to have got the ball down on the line, only to be pulled for a knock on. With less than two minutes remaining, Hornets packed down to defend the set that could define their season. And what a set it was. Forcing an error from Skolars, Hornets shipped the ball to the left were Steve Roper found Dave Llewellyn arrving like a train, steaming through tired tackles to plant the ball and bring the crowd to its feet. Crooky banged home the two to give Hornets the narrowest of victories. Fantastic stuff.
We suggested in our preview for this game that the team that wanted this one most would succeed. Indeed, when things are tight, teams of strong character find a way to win. Now we need to find a way to win at Whitebank next week. By hook. Or by Crook.