Oldham 22 - Hornets 23
There was much discussion before the game about whether Whitebank could be the RL world's least hospitable semi-final venue. Played through a relentess downpour of diluvian proportions, it was clear that the team best able to cope with the appalling conditions would gain a significant advantage.
With little open football on show, this was a war of squelchy attrition. Indeed, we wrote last week that teams of strong character find a way to win. And, whilst every single Hornets player on show gave absolutely everything to the cause, with three from three conversions, two 40/20s, two huge penalties, a try-making grubber and a one-man exhibition of flawless tactical kicking, it was worth every single penny of our twelve quid to watch Paul Crook kick Oldham to an absolute standstill.
But Oldham were first to exploit the conditions, hoisting an awkward spiralling kick to the corner after 6 minutes.
Gaz Langley looked to get a nudge in flight, but Mr Hewer was satisfied that no offence had been committed and Ford pounced on the loosened ball to score. No matter.
Led by Crooky's rader-guided boot, Hornets began their ascent of Whitebank's slippery slope. A series of punishing kicks had Oldham schlepping back to gather possession in their own in-goal; an enthusiastic defence perpetually willing to chase them down and pin Oldham in their own 10 metre zone. And it paid dividends after 17 minutes.
Crook smacked a massive 40/20 up the slope and good approach work saw Carl Forster crash over the line, but unable to ground the ball.
Forster then turned provider: finding the onrushing Joe Greenwood with a sweet short pass and he bustled and wrenched his way in to get the ball down. Crooky added the two, followed by a cool penalty up the hill into the wind 10 minutes later to give Hornets a slender 6-8 lead.
Just past the half hour, another monster Crook 40/20 took Hornets deep into Oldham territory, where, this tme, John Cookson went agonisingly close to scoring, felled inches short. Oldham made a spectacular mess of the resulting possession - Whitehead spewing the ball under no pressure into the arms of the Jordan Case who dived in through an agog defence to score a sitter. Crooky made no mistake to send Hornets in at the break 6-14 ahead.
Oldham began the second half as they did the first. A teasing Palfrey dink through from close range took a couple of deflections, Hughes quickest to react to haul Oldham back into the game at 12-14.
The arm-wrestle continued, both sides keeping it tight, but Crook's kicking gave Hornets the upper-hand, turning Oldham's defence around again and again. And when Oldham transgressed on 50 minutes, the Ginger General coolly stroked home the 45 metre penalty to stretch Hornets lead.
On the hour, it was Crook again who unlocked the Oldham defence. Great approach work from the Hornets pack drove Oldham back under their own posts and, as the defence rushed out on the last tackle, Crooky slipped a slide-rule kick past the left post for Wayne English to ghost in and score. Fantastic stuff. Crooky with the two: 12-22.
Now it was Oldham's turn to dig in and chase the game - and they came up with two quickfire tries for winger Agoro, who'd looked like he'd much rather be somewhere else for most of the afternoon. The first was a last tackle squeeze-in by the flag (Palfrey's conversion attempt well short into the wind); the second off a Palfrey chip that caused chaos behind the Hornets defence. Palfrey this time good for the two and - out of nowhere - the game locked up at 22-all with four minutes to play.
Hornets didn't piss about. Stern defence restricted Oldham to completing sets in their own half and after a couple of 'range-finders' first from Wayne English and then by Paul Crook, Hornets launched the crucial attack of the game. Again the forwards ground Oldham back down the hill and, with tackles to spare, the ball found Crooky with enough time and space to launch the 30 metre drop goal that sealed the victory. Quite simply, bloody stunning.
There was barely time to restart the game and the hooter signalled celebrations as Hornets take their place in the Kingstone Press Championship 1 Grand Final.
And that's well worth the soaking.