Monday, 20 August 2018

It ‘Aint All Rovers Till The Fat Lady Sings

Hornets 24 - Featherstone 33

What a difference six weeks makes. Way back in the sweltering heat of early July, Featherstone Rovers - abetted by a freak performance from Rhinos dual reg rake Brad Dwyer - nailed 80 points on a try-hard Hornets. But back then, the world was a different - sunnier- place. Fev were riding high on a wave of optimism: looking good for a top four finish, a place in the qualifiers beckoned teasingly - along with all the financial rewards that brings, in terms of central distribution, bigger gates, bigger plans…

Fast forward to a muggy, drizzly day at Spotland and lo - before us sit Featherstone Rovers. No top four, no cash bonanza. No Brad Dwyer. Shorn of motivaton, incentive and a one man points machine, Featherstone proved to be an altogether less challenging proposition as - for an hour - they looked like they’d really rather be somewhere else.

Hornets on the other hand sniffed the opportunity to add to Rovers’ woes and - with only a 16-man squad available to the departing Alan Kilshaw - came agonisingly close to upseting the odds.

Despite conceding a drop-out from Fev’s first set, Hornets set to work early doors. Having hoodwinked an offside penalty at a scrum, Hornets marched straight downfield where they forced a drop-out of their own from a Danny Yates kick. The Hornets pack drove Featherstone backwards, Ben Moores revealed a cheeky grubber and - as the Rovers defence debated a reaction, Lee Mitchell reached in to score. Tyler Whittaker the two - plus a penalty shortly afterwards - saw Hornets with a comfortable 8-nil lead after 10 minutes. The visiting fans audibly disgruntled at Hornets' audacity.

Their ire rose further as Hornets stuck to playing what football was on offer: Jo Taira punching holes in the defensive line; a teasing break by Luke Adamson and Tyler Whittaker; then Taira again, smashing the wind out of Maskill to force a knock-on.

On the quarter mark, the traffic was decidedly one-way - and as Hornets kicked high over a retreating Rovers defence, the ball tipped tantalisingly from Miles Greenwood’s fingers.

The let-off roused Rovers from their slumbers - and they got lucky when the ball squirmed free following a last-tackle kick going nowhere to give them a repeat set at close quarters. Hornets stood firm and went back downfield, but a moment’s hesitation at a dropped pass saw the visitors work the ball wide on the free-play for Thackeray to capitalise on a stretched right-edge defence to score. Hardman the extras and - after half an hour - the Featherstone fans finally had something to be less grumpy about.

Things got less miserable still just two minutes later. Lewis Hatton was removed for a head check after a collision in a tackle and, while Hornets were reshuffling their middles, Featherstone exploited the situation: Davies hitting a flat ball to score as Hornets scrambled back into shape. Unfortunate. Hardman the conversion and Fev ahead 8-12.

With the half counting down, more determined defence forced a Rovers knock-on. Hornets worked their way back to the visitors’ goal-line and Tyler Whittaker looked to have touched down a kick into the in-goal - but referee Mr Bennet gave a drop out instead. Hornets' response was clinical. A solid set to stand Rovers on their own goal-line, then Rob Massam launching from acting half through a hapless Whylie on the last tackle to score. Tyler Whittaker good with the boot and Hornets headed for the sheds 14-12 up. And deservedly so.

Hornets began the second half capitalising on a flurry of Featherstone errors: a knock-on first set; then Robinson making a total hash of a Whittaker bomb. Hornets were swift and direct in response: Billy Brickhill piling in from close range only to be called ‘held-up’. No matter. Hornets moved the ball across the face of a static Rovers defence and when Yatesey launched a lofted kick towards a hesitant Whylie, there was only going to be one winner as Rob Massam gathered in the air to score. Tyler Whittaker on target from the touchline and Hornets 20-12 up before most of the Rovers fans had got back from their fag-break.

Then, a momentum shift. Hornets again switching on too late at a free-play - this time Newman with the try. Then Mr Bennet reading a Rovers knock-on as interference. Newman again up the edge to score and - against the run of logic - Featherstone somehow ahead at 20-24 going into the final quarter.

With the game now an arm-wrestle, both sides struggled for impetus: Thackeray involved twice, firstly hoofing the ball dead - spitting his dummy after gleeful Hornets celebration. Then the target of an absolute bell-ringing tackle by Jo Taira that saw Newman square off against Seta Tala in the aftermath. A shaken Featherstone taking the two - then a Thackeray drop-goal on 71 minutes. The Rugby League equivalent of parking the bus.

Hornets regatherted the kick-off and - 45 seconds later - Seta Tala latched onto a Danny Yates kick behind a flat-footed defence to close the gap to 24-27. Six minutes to win it - and Hornets had every intention of doing so, working the ball to Massam, who skinned Whylie and pinned back his ears, only for a despairing dive from Taulapapa to halt what looked like a nailed-on try.

Back in possession, Rovers huffed and puffed their way downfield - Jo Taira (now playing in the centre) and Richard Lepori darting back to snuff out a break. Somewhere in what appeared to be a perfectly good tackle, Mr Bennet saw a high shot and - with seconds left on the clock - Davies came rumbling in from close range to score through a weary defence. Hardman completing a perfect afternoon with the boot; Featherstone flattered at 24-33.

There’s no doubt that this was a tough one to swallow. Again Hornets gave it absolutely every ounce - their depleted side putting in a monumantal shift against a Rovers outfit unrecogniseable from a month ago. Yes, Featherstone are clearly in the ‘not-remotely-arsed’ zone - but to turn round an 80-point drubbing to a point where Hornets were one Taulapapa tackle away from a win they would have deserved is a feat to be lauded.

Ultimately, both sides leave this game contemplating the relativity of success and failure. Fev head for the Shield final with their season in tatters, Hornets stare down the barrel of relegation having - again - come tantalisingly close. But Featherstone have burned three or four times Hornets’ budget this year to end up in the same half of the split - and just nine points better. Not much of a difference at all.