Sunday, 16 August 2015

Spoiler Alert!

Oxford 16 - Hornets 54

League 1 poses some difficult challenges - and Saturday’s trip to play Oxford at Hemel was a compendium of miscellaneous pains in the backside that Hornets did well to overcome. Dragging people through over 100 miles of speed restricted roadworks on the M6 and M1 on the sunniest Saturday in August was challenge enough - crawling traffic, relentless queues, stretched patiences all round. Add the transport problems that had the team arrive over an hour late, a delayed kick-off and a baking hot day, and it already has the feel of an obligation to be endured.

And then there’s Oxford. We know that missionary work in the RL wasteland of the South is a difficult job, but it’s hard for players to get themselves up for a meaningful contest when the away support of 26 (we counted) outnumbers the home support. Indeed, the noisy Hornets hardcore strove to create the semblance of a game happening in what was basically a hermetically sealed RL vaccuum.

Under such awkward, unedifying circumstances, Hornets did what was expected of them - playing sufficient proactive football to see off an awkward, stubborn, spoiling Oxford side who sent the penalty count off the scale as they sought to suck every last drop of momentum out of the game.

Since we put 70-odd through them at Spotland - and since Swinton handed them their arse a month ago - Tim Rumford has had to find a way to make Oxford hard to beat - but, by christ, they’re ugly to watch.

They get in your face, in your way - hands in every tackle, lying on in numbers, borderline high shots  a regular occurence. It turns rugby league into an obstacle course.

It took Hornets ten minutes or so to work their way round it: quick hands right, Wayne English slotting the ever-improving Brad Hargreaves in at the flag: Crooky off the touchline for 0-6. Then Hornets coughed the kick-off possession.

Gifted the ball at close quarters, Oxford rumbled forward to score a defacto pig-ugly push-over try in the corner. No-one could quite believe it - least of all the Oxford contigent. We don’t have the try-scorer - pick any one from half a dozen bodies round the ball. Kitson off the touchline with the kick 6-all.

It was the signal for Hornets to extract the finger: on 20 minutes Jordan Case sent spinning in off a Danny Yates pass, Crooky the extras 6-12; five minutes later Mike Ratu crashing through tackles after a swift passing move, Crooky hitting the post, 6-16; then on the half hour a speculative Danny Yates kick carried into touch by winger Matthews, quick hands wide from the scrum for Dave Hull to score, 6-20. Then with three minutes remaining a huge break from Mike Ratu, sucking in defenders, the ball smuggled out of the back of the tackle for Danny Yates to dummy through and score from 20 metres. Crooky the two off  the touchline for 6-26 - a whirlwind second quarter a just reward for fluid football over relentless spoiling.

Hornets began the second half as they’d ended the first: just two minutes on the clock as Dale Bloomfield scored in the corner after Hornets had been awarded a mystery penalty after Oxford fullback Thomas seemed to make a perfectly good catch off a Hornets bomb. Answers on a postcard to match commissioner Bob Connolly.

And the penalties just kept coming, Oxford shipping three in quick succession - Wayne English just losing the ball as he dived in on 48  minutes. No matter. Within two minutes Alex McClurg plunged in from close range. Despite looking like he’d been held-up, the touch-judge contradicted the referee and the try was given. Crooky the two amidst the chaos for 6-36.

Oxford briefly showed what they’re capable of when they engineered a tidy break for Nathaniel to score, but normal service was resumed just two minutes later when Andrage was sin-binned for two consucutive high tackles. 12-36.

On 58 minutes Hornets had another sparkling effort struck off - Danny Yates adjudjed to have failed to ground the ball after some slick inter-passing. Then some concern when Paul Crook came reeling out of a tackle holding his shoulder - the Ginger General gritting his teeth after some treatment and battling on.

With the hour coming up, another assertive Hornets approach set saw James Dandy swatting off defenders to score from 30 metres; followed by Matt Fozzard mugging the home defence from acting half: Crooky on target with both for 12-48.

With the game ebbing away, thus came the moment worth spending 10 hours in the car for; Danny Yates a teasing, lofted kick into space behind the Oxford defence, Dale Bloomfield’s seamless chase, leap, catch and touchdown: as good a try as you’ll see anywhere. Crooky imperious from the touchline 12-54.

There was just enough time for Oxford to produce their one moment of lucid football - a dink to the corner for Gardiner to touch down at the death, but it was all a bit incidental; 16-54.

In the wash-up, this was a professional, hard-won two points. People insist that it’s good for the game if the ’Southern teams’ are competitive - and when they are, the same people moan when they don’t roll over and swallow a 90 point drubbing.

Every element of this game had the word ‘awkward’ written all over it, but for the width of a post and two struck-off tries, we’d’ve been looking at another 70 point flogging. As it was, Oxford have found a way to make themselves hard(er) to beat and Hornets fulfilled their end of the deal by only ever looking like winning this one.

Which meant -  as we trekked back up the M1 last night, getting home at 10pm - it felt just about worth the trip.