Monday, 24 August 2015

So close, yet...

Hornets 8 - Keighley 10

As the sky emptied a deluvian deluge onto Spotland, it was the visitors that managed to summon up that slim scintilla of advantage that enabled them to steal away with the points.

With so much at stake, this game was never likely to be a free-scoring points-fest, and so it proved: two sides locked in unrelenting struggle, with fluid football at an absolute premium and two defences on unforgiving form.

Hornets began with the momentum - regathering the kick-off, then gifted a penalty by the surrealist ‘look-at-me’ performance art of referee Mr Grant - but they were called offside at a probing Danny Yates kick to let Keighley off the hook.

The visitors took full advantage, marching straight downfield where Handforth fed Tahraoui into a hole to score. Lawton wide with the kick: 0-4.

As the game settled into its tight-knit groove, Brad Hargreaves was wrong-footed by a horrible deflected kick to give Keighley good field position. Having diffused the danger, Mr Grant brought play back under the Hornets posts to give the Cougars a mystery penalty. As the visitors sent in the big guns against a resolute Hornets defence, Mr Grant again intervened, this time giving Hornets a penalty on their own line. No - we don’t know either.

Hornets strove to play what little football was on offer, with Danny Yates the fulcrum: a lofted kick for Dale Bloomfield scuffed dead for a drop-out, his cut-out pass to Bloomers agonisingly short of its target, a grubber through for Danny Bridge to chase forcing another repeat set.

The pressure finally told on 22 minutes as swift hands right found Mike Ratu with enough space to skittle defenders and score. Crooky wide with the conversion 4-all.

The remainder of the half was a tug-of-war - both sides probing and, as the heavens opened, struggling to make any meaningful progress. Keighley did manage a fluke repeat set when a wayward pass was fly-hacked into the in-goal - then dropping the ball cold over the line after another dubious penalty.

Hornets too found another moment of lucidity, working a neat blind-side move only for Brad Hargreaves to get bundled into touch.

Half time, 4-all - the rain now pounding down.

Hornets began the second half with purpose: a repeat set off a Crooky kick, then two quick-fire Paul Crook penalties - the second from 5 metres inside his own half - edged Hornets in front 8-4. You could feel the sphincters tighten.

It was now clear that Cougars playmaker Handforth was little more than a passenger - unable to run, flinching with every pass. Everyone in the ground saw an opportunity to repeatedly run a big man at him. If only…

With the game firmly wedged in the middle third of the field, it was Keighley who broke the deadlock with the hour approaching: Gabriel somehow finding space to get the ball down as Danny Yates shunted him into the flag. 8-all: tense stuff.

Then, on the hour, the moment that broke the game: Jordan Case needlessly forcing a pass, Gabriel intercepting and breaking upfield, referee Grant deeming the cover tackle a high shot; Handforth from bang in front  8-10.

The last quarter became a desperate scramble. On 63 minutes a good high-tempo Hornets  approach set was truncated by a penalty 40 metres out. Crooky elected to take the kick - and dragged it painfully wide of the mark. From the 20m restart, a teasing Crooky kick forced a repeat set, but the ball slipped from Danny Bridge’s fingers as he reached for the line.

On 70 minutes, Keighley launched Gabriel on a blistering break; Wayne English producing an outstanding try-saving tackle. Hornets then fashioned a hurried repeat set that fell apart with a second tackle knock-on.

Then, Mr Grant’s piece de resistance of a refereeing performance that was, frankly, shambolic. The ball slipping from Keighley winger White’s hands as he brought the ball out of his own 20. No knock-on given - then Hornets  penalised the next tackle. Awful, awful, awful…

With time - and chances - ebbing away, Hornets were handed a lifeline in the 78th minute. A soft Keighley penalty 30 metres out; the magic in Crooky’s right boot deserting him as the shot faded to the right of the posts. Final score 8-10.

Yes, this was a tense affair - the nerves palpable as two teams wrestled for the inch of difference that would win this game. Indeed, this was the top seven made manifest - tight, airless: a test of fortitude. In the wash-up, Barrow’s defeat at Oldham meant that Hornets remain clinging to that fifth spot - but this result does open the door for North Wales.

This season really is going right down the the very last drop.