Monday, 9 July 2018

Smith Stars in The Late Show

Hornets 28 - Swinton 26

On the hottest day of the year, Hornets and Swinton served up a nail-biting, blockbusting barnstormer of a game that gave us knavish tricks, heroics - and a grandstand finish worthy of any great piece of theatre.

For 80 minutes both teams went toe-to-toe, in a relentless battle of wills. Swinton hell-bent on breaking the game up: loitering in tackles, sprawling and spoiling - and not averse to some stone-cold gamesmanship (the worst culprit, Bracek, who - late in proceedings - lay as if shot in the in-goal to give his team time time to recover; only then to jump to his feet and acknowledge the hail of boos from the home fans. Pretty cheap we thought).

Hornets on the other hand strove to play some expansive football -  but too many times the last pass to an edge was misjudged. Given the contrast in styles and the sheer bloody-mindedness of the participants, what unfolded was a fascinating contest.

Swinton raced into an early 0-12 lead courtesy of a 40/20 that led to walking anger-issue Tyson finding space to score, then the Lions capitalising on a Hornets penalty to send Brown in up the edge.

Hornets hit back almost immediately. Having forced an error the ball was shifted to Seta Tala who engaged the cogs to grind his way through a mass of defenders to score from 20m. Smith the extras, 6-12.

Swinton stretched the lead courtesy of a couple of Hankinson penalties - the first of which led to 26-man handbags after Hornets forced a knock-on from the kick-off.

While Swinton were more than happy to feed on penalty scraps, Hornets stuck to the task of trying to play football - and were rewarded on 23 minutes when good hands through the channel saw Seta Tala draw the winger to send Richard Lepori in: 10–16.

If it were not hot enough, the introduction of Jo Taira raised the temperature. Virtually his first contribution was to land an almighty bell-ringer of a tackle on Brown to force a drop-out, only to be judged to have applied a shoulder. He then got snagged for the high shot that allowed Hankinson to take another 2 points (10-18), but he made amends two minutes later when he boomed in off a short ball to score. Unstoppable.  Morgan Smith added the extras and you could feel the momentum shift.

As the game headed for the break Hornets threw the kitchen sink at Swinton, who were now a mess of petulance and errors. Indeed, as much as Hornets didn’t want half-time to come, Swinton clung to the ropes desperate for the hooter.

Half-time, a head-spinning 16-18.

The second half continued where the first had left off: Swinton all niggle and cheap penalties, desperate to stem any momentum. and when Barlow milked a 45th minute penalty in embarrassing fashion, Hankinson added yet another two (16-20).

The game now attritional, both sides refusing to yield.

Swinton - somehow gifted a mystery penalty - again ignited a scuffle in the aftermath, but Hornets continued to move the ball. Seta Tala bundled into touch on the hour with support and tackles top spare. But it was a rare moment of fluidity as both sides struggled to establish a rhythm.

As the visitors sought any means to breach the Hornets defence, an acting half kick into the in-goal on 68 minutes pinball around, Jones the first to react and touch down. Hankinson a simple conversion and Swinton ten points clear with eleven minutes to play.

Hornets sucked in for one last big push. A great 75th minute approach set lay the platform and when George King came blasting onto a short, flat ball five metres out, he wouldn’t be denied. Morgan Smith the two: 22-26 with four minutes to play.

Hornets went straight back on the attack, again putting the ball through hands - but the last pass to Rob Massam was hurried and over-cooked.

All Swinton had to do was play out the set, kick it long and the game was theirs.

But wait…

The set was perfectly executed: five one-man drives. The ball was sent to Hankinson to dispatch downfield, but Morgan Smith saw one last opportunity and stretched every sinew to charge down the kick. As the ball fell behind the helpless Hankinson, Smith gathered it on the run to dart 30 metres and plant the ball under the black dot to tie the scores. Cue mayhem! The main stand on its feet; Alan Kilshaw skipping up the touchline punching the air. Bloody marvellous.

Morgan Smith then the coolest man in the ground to add the conversion and give Hornets the lead for the first time with less than a minute remaining.

Pretty much everyone anticipated one last Hail-Mary short kick-off, but Swinton elected to kick harmlessly to the 30m line. Two tackles later it was all over: the home fans delirious, the Swinton fans shellshocked.

Having scored five tries to three, it’s clear that Hornets had the footballing edge. And lovers of irony will see the chargedown of Hankinson’s late kick as redress for Swinton’s penalty-pinching tactics.

As Hornets gird-up for a horrible run-in, we can do so with confidence. This was a blistering team effort, every one of the 17 giving every ounce they had. It was a good afternoon to be a Hornet.

In the wash-up, this was a game that had everything. Passion, commitment and a heart-stopping finish. That the bottom end of the Championship is somehow dismissed as a sideshow for those with Super League ambitions is criminal. This was Rugby League in its finest, purest form.

Simply breathtaking.