Harrogate RUFC return to winning ways with 'important' victory at struggling Sandal RUFC
Having begun the season superbly, the Aces finished 2023 with back-to-back defeats, with those results seeing them lose crucial ground in the North One East title race.
And although struggling Sandal could have snatched the spoils at the death had they kicked a last-gasp penalty, ‘Gate made it over the line in the end, ensuring that they didn’t lose any further ground on league leaders York.
"It’s a pleasing five points,” Harrogate director of rugby Wood said. “I feel for Sandal a bit, because they played very well and had a chance to nick it at the death, but it was ultimately really important for us to get back to winning ways.
"We were a bit rusty because we hadn’t played for some time, however I feel like we were in control pretty much all of the way through.
"I don’t want to sound like I’m being derogatory about Sandal, because I thought they performed well, and like I say, they could have edged in front with the last kick.
"But, we looked a threat throughout. We scored four tries, but only converted one, which is really unlike us, and that kept the score-line a bit closer than it might have been.
"And we had three clear opportunities to score tries in the first half, and two more in the second. So, we were kicking ourselves for not finishing at least some of them off. Had we been more clinical, then obviously it makes a difference in terms of the score-line.”
On the individuals who stood out for the Aces during Saturday’s game, Wood added: “Sam Brady, our captain, was excellent. His leadership was important again, it has really come on over the last six months.
"Ben Richardson had to play at seven again and he was really good at breakdown. And it was also nice to have so much experience on the bench.
“To be able to bring on Phil Wickham and Guy Coser, two players with a lot of National Two experience, makes a big difference and they really helped us during the final 35 minutes.”
Harrogate started the match positively, playing with the benefit of a significant slope.
Rory Macnab broke through from halfway before being tackled just short of the Sandal line, though Will Hill was on hand to take over and put the visitors 5-0 up with just over a minute gone. The resulting conversion attempt was however missed.
Two minutes later, Sandal had a chance to get on the scoreboard with a penalty. Confusion abounded when a touch judge’s flag was raised, the score announcer confirmed that the shot at goal was ‘good’ and the ‘score’ was registered on the board.
However, referee Matthew Higgins correctly ruled that the kick had missed the posts and so it remained 5-0 to the Aces.
Another mesmerising Macnab run then took play into Sandal’s 22, but a knock-on halted the move. Forward pressure eventually saw ‘Gate cross the try-line for a second time, but with the ball adjudged to have been held up, a goal-line drop out ensued.
On 15 minutes, the hosts broke uphill and kicked through. Gate’s defence did not deal with the situation effectively and Will Henshaw was able to cross for a try that Jake Adams converted to put his team into the lead.
Shortly after, Tom Steene broke through the middle, but a Sandal interception inside the home 22 enabled them to clear to safety.
This incursion eventually saw Wood’s men concede a five-metre scrum, following which Tom Hodson scored the home team’s second try, but was unable to convert.
With two minutes left of the half, ‘Gate kicked through, but the ball was knocked-on in the act of being taken over the try-line, enabling Sandal to clear.
The hosts were reduced to 14 men following a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on just before the interval, but they still made it through half-time with their 12-7 advantage intact.
Harrogate started the second period in a similar fashion to the way that they began the first. Richard Kaisia broke through in midfield and, two passes later, Ewan Evans scored in the right-hand corner.
Macnab’s conversion hit the cross-bar, leaving Gate two points behind.
Sandal pressure then resulted in Luke Adams going over for an unconverted try in the 53rd minute, though a positive ‘Gate response saw them held up over the line once again.
They continued to attack, but strong Sandal defence initially kept them out until, in the 66th minute, a long miss-pass in midfield set Evans free on the right wing. He then off-loaded inside for debutant Kodie Brook to register the visitors’ third touchdown, making the score 17-15 in the process.
Sandal responded with a Tom Hodson penalty in the 73rd minute, but when they conceded a penalty for a high tackle, Tom Steene took the Aces five metres from the home line.
Having secured the ball from the resulting line-out, forward pressure resulted in Harry Butler going over for Harrogate’s bonus-point try and levelling the scores.
Crucially, Macnab was successful with his conversion attempt on this occasion, handing ‘Gate a two-point lead with only four minutes remaining.
There was still time for the visitors to give away a penalty just before the final whistle, presenting Hodson with the opportunity to nick the game for Sandal.
He would however pushed his strike at goal wide of the upright, enabling Harrogate to escape with the win.
Victory leaves ‘Gate third in the table, level on points with Heath and 11 behind top-of-the-table York.
They return to action this Saturday when they entertain Doncaster Phoenix at Rudding Lane, 2pm kick-off.