Sometimes it needs a moment of inspiration to crack open an awkward game. Having dug in their heels for an hour - and trailing only 24-30 - Oxford were proving somewhat difficult for a patched-up, re-shuffled Hornets side to shake off. Then an injury to Stuart Biscomb provided the opportunity for the one minute of insight and ingenuity that hauled the game out of Oxford’s reach.
As Biscomb lay spark-out being attended by the medical staff, Alan Kilshaw made his way to the nearside touchline and called his team over, where he delivered an impassioned impromptu team-talk that appeared to involve an awful lot of pointing.
Within 90 seconds of the resumption of play, Paul Crook stepped into space via a delicious show & go, to hit Michael Ratu with a neat reverse pass for the try that effectively ended Oxford’s resistance.
Up to that point, Oxford had been a bit of a tough nut to crack. It’s fair to say that being top of the table inspires teams to lift their game, but when Crooky hoisted a bomb on 7 minutes and Chris Riley recovered the ball to step through a flapping defence, it all looked pretty straightforward.
But Oxford’s response was direct and immediate.Testing the right hand channel policed by Hornets debutant Jake Shoel, Siddons slipped Nathaniel through the tightest of gaps, Burnett added the extras and at 6-all it felt like a blip. And when Burnett dodged through Crooky’s tackle to give the home side the lead on 20 minutes, the sizeable Hornets contingent in the crowd looked skywards through raised eyebrows.
Thankfully it proved to be the cue for Hornets to lift the tempo. Ben Moores’ charge-down on 25 minutes took Hornets deep into Oxford territory, where Dale Bloomfield backed-up to go close. Then straightforward ‘ball-through-hands’ found Jono Smith barrelling in to score. Crooky the two for 12-all.
On the half-hour Hornets stretched their lead when Jono Smith bumped off a tackler to send Ben Moores under the black-dot. Crooky from bang in front to send Hornets in at the break 12-18 to the good.
Hornets began the second half with intent: Samir Tahraoui snaffling a tidy pop-up ball to score after Wayne English had gone teasingly close. Crooky the extras for 12-24.
But like a wasp at a picnic, Oxford just refused to go away. And when Siddon hit a peach of a flat ball on 46 minutes to score, Allan slotted the two to close the gap to just one score.
The sides then traded quick-fire tries (Matt Hadden off a short-range crash-ball, Canterbury stepping through some very ordinary defence) to haul the scoreline to 24-30 and with the last quarter looming Stuart Biscomb piled into a tackle, only to remain motionless on the floor as the ruck cleared.
Kilshaw saw his chance and made his way to the nearside touchline…
Within 90 seconds of the resumption of play, Paul Crook stepped into space via a delicious show & go, to hit Michael Ratu with a neat reverse pass for a try that belied the quality of the game. Crooky banged over the two and suddenly Hornets looked like a different proposition.
On 68 minutes a Jono Smith effort was struck-off for a dubious offside, then Oxford’s short-fused wing Nathaniel was sin-binned. Hornets immediately went left where Chris Riley chimed in from close range.
On 74 minutes Jono Smith tunnelled in after Lewis Galbraith had gone close and when Alex Trumper was launched off a sweet flat-ball on 78 minutes, Hornets looked comfortably home and hosed.
Having rejoined the game in time for the last play, Nathaniel ended the game exchanging punches with Ben Moores, the two pointlessly yellow-carded after the hooter.
In the end this was a tricky banana skin of a game well negotiated. Oxford gave it a real dig for an hour - but it was Alan Kilshaw’s intervention that shifted Hornets up a gear. Indeed, it’d be churlish to complain too much about travelling to the other end of the country and scoring 52 points.
Our Man of the Match sits somewhere between Jono Smith and Samir Tahraoui - both of whom provided the home defence with plenty to think about. Mention too of Hornets’ ’18th man’ - the hardy bunch of fans who coughed up 8 hours on the motorway to provide the game’s noise and atmosphere - which, in itself, was pretty inspirational.