Kells 12 - Hornets 29
Freezing; blowing a quite literal gale; a pitch that looked freshly ploughed, a boisterous home crowd with the sniff of an upset in their nostrils - and Hornets rocking up late, compelled to change on the bus and truncate their warm up. This trip to the gloomiest ever iteration of 'Darkest West Cumbria' had all the ingredients of that fabled sporting banana skin. Indeed, it took the home side just two minutes to get this horror-show underway; catching Hornets stone-cold.
Having coughed a penalty for offside on the second tackle of the game, Hornets retreated downhill into the gloom where Kells took play to the left, shipped the ball to the right and - we think - Dalton strolled in for an embarrassingly straightforward try. Gainford added the extras, the locals celebrated like they'd won a fiver on a scratchcard and the knot of hardy Hornets fans rolled their eyes skywards.
Hornets continued in the same lackadaisical fashion for the next quarter of an hour: loose carries, shoddy passes, cheap penalities. The light literally and metaphorically being sucked out of the Recreation Ground by a quite awful passage of play.
On 17 minutes Kells launched a big, daft, old-skool up-'n'-under into the swirling wind. Hornets dropped the ball. The referee gave the feed to Hornets. No, we dont know either, but it served to cattle-prod Hornets into life. Augmented by a penalty for a high tackle deep in Kells territory, Tony Suffolk ran hard and straight to get Hornets on the scoreboard. Crooky the two; six-all. The silent darkness broken by the sound of distant tutting.
But it was the home side spurred into further action, firing a huge 40/20 down Gaz Langley's touchline to go on the attack. But they squandered their chance with a poor last tackle kick.
Hornets roused briefly from their torpor: good field position blown on the back of a forward pass under no pressure; then Gaz Langley's mazy run ending in an obstruction when it looked easier to score.
Just past the half hour, neat footwork and quick hands sent James Dandy in to give Hornets the lead. Crooky good with the conversion: 6-12. With the hooter iminent, Hornets took a tap penalty close to the Kells line, but Jordan Case spilled the first pass. The hooter came as a blessing, putting a shocking half out of its misery.
In the now near darkness (the Recreation Ground's pitiful floodlights barely making a difference), Kells began the second half shipping consecutive penalties that put Hornets on the front foot; but what looked like a Jordan Case try was struck-off for a forward pass and then a panicky, overplayed run-around handed Kells easy possession. Awful, really. Then - on 48 minutes - the inevitable arrived. Having been held up over the line, Kells dabbed a last tackle dink into the in-goal - and, while Hornets defenders debated the options, Joyce was decisive, diving in to touch down. Gainford's night-vision good enough to add the two. 12-all.
On 51 minutes a rare Hornets foray forced a Kells drop-out. Hornets response was uncommonly swift: Paterson gathering the kick on the run, his pass slotting Dale Bloomfield in by the flag. Crooky wide with the kick: 12-16. Around the hour mark, Hornets finally began to build some pressure: another drop-out, a Ryan Smith try struck-off for a particularly dubious forward pass. And - if it weren't dark enough - Dale Bloomfield's lights were put out as he hit his head in an innocuous tackle. Play was held-up for 12 minutes while the medical staff worked on him. Stretchered from the field and dispatched to hospital by ambulance, it wasn't the best way to end the night for Bloomers.
Kells came out of the lacuna more focused: forcing a close-shave drop-out, then kicking through a static Hornets defence to go close. But Hornets weathered the storm to go back down the hill where another try was blown when Dave Hull's last pass to Gaz Langley was deemed forward.
With ten minutes to play, Hornets did the only thing they could realistically do: extract the digit, up the tempo, take the game to Kells and get the hell out with the win. On 73 minutes Ryan Smith took advantage of a free-play from a knock-on, dinking a peach of a kick into space for Gaz Langley to score. Crooky off the touchline for 12-22. Then, on 75 minutes, a bonkers Danny Yates drop goal edged Hornets nearer the fourth-round draw.
And when Kells' rotund Substitute made a very poor career decision in hitting Tony Suffolk sparking an all-in handbags-in the dark scuffle with two minutes to play, the ref red-carded one Kells player and yellow carded another, Suffolk got a yellow for retaliation. There was just enough time for Jordan Case to score a late, late coverted try to give the game a cold, thin veneer of respectability at 12-29.
Sadly, there's no way to dress this one up. It was a 24 carat stinker from first whistle to final hooter. Hornets would struggle to pay this badly again, whilst Kells covered themselves in glory, giving an exceptional account of themselves. Chatting to a Kells fan in the car-park afterwards, he said: "You should be embarrassed by that". But whilst it may not have been our finest 80 minutes, a pig-ugly win is a win nonetheless. Cold comfort indeed.