Harrogate RUFC triumph at Kirkby Lonsdale to close gap at top of the table
Harrogate RUFC moved to within a bonus-point win of the North Premier summit courtesy of Saturday’s 30-16 triumph on the road at Kirkby Lonsdale.
That hard-earned victory for Dave Doherty’s high-flyers in what was their opening fixture of the New Year, combined with a first loss of the season for league leaders Billingham, has blown the title race wide open.
The Aces now find themselves just five points shy of the division’s pace-setters, while Blaydon sit a mere two points further back in third place.
And with another showdown with Billingham still to come, ‘Gate will now feel that the destination of the championship is back in their own hands.
Their latest success, win number 12 in 14 matches, did not come easily.
Back in 2017/18, Harrogate ended Kirkby’s 51-game unbeaten home run and, up until last weekend, the Cumbrians hadn’t lost a game on their own patch all season.
When they took an early 10-0 lead, they looked a good bet to go on and extend that sequence, however Doherty and his players had other ideas.
After an even start, a ‘Gate knock-on put the visitors under pressure and this error was followed by an offside offence, from which home fly-half, Mile Fearon kicked the opening three points of the afternoon.
The next significant event was a nasty nose injury to Harrogate’s goal-kicking centre, Sam Fox, which ended his participation.
Kirkby right-winger Harry Ralston then made a strong break and chipped ahead, but a ‘Gate player won the chase for the touchdown.
However, from the subsequent attacking scrum, Kirkby hooker Dan Armistead drove over to score a converted try and extend the hosts’ advantage to 10 points.
A midfield dust-up involving both packs then led to yellow cards for Harrogate’s Andy Boyde and Kirkby’s Harlan Corrie, though some well-controlled driving mauls were gradually gaining the Aces the ascendancy.
Quick ball was spun right from one such situation and Harry Barnard celebrated his return from a long injury lay-off with a sharply-taken try.
Barnard soon made his presence felt again with a strong 60-metre break out of defence and Danny Matthews was in support to score a try converted by Doherty to put Harrogate 12-10 ahead as half time approached.
There was however still time for one more score before the interval, the Cumbrians quickly regaining the lead from a penalty following another ‘Gate offside offence.
Increasingly powerful Harrogate scrummaging put Kirkby under pressure immediately after the re-start and, when their retreating pack was penalised, Doherty’s kick at the posts restored his team’s narrow lead.
More of the same followed and another penalty goal made it 18-13 on 53 minutes.
A home counter-attack was then checked and a massive Doherty line kick relieved the pressure.
A set-back was to follow, as full-back Oli Rosillo was forced from the field with a leg injury and things got worse for ‘Gate when industrious second row Tom Harvey followed him with a hand problem sustained just moments later.
A Kirkby attacking move was ended by a superb tackle and turnover from Mason Knowles, who was linking increasingly well with fellow centre Marcus Mercer.
A Knowles burst was then checked just short of the line, but the ball was recycled right and quick hands from Boyde and Doherty put Barnard into space for his second try, making the score 23-13.
Harrogate then found themselves on the wrong end of a number of refereeing decisions as the hosts strove to get back into the game, a penalty goal from an offside offence eventually trimming the gap to 23-16.
More away scrum pressure followed, however, and a strong run from hooker Tom Driscoll set up another attack.
Forwards and backs linked well to continue the move and Driscoll himself crashed over for the final converted try of the match, earning the Aces a bonus point.
Next up for Doherty and his men is a home clash with fifth-placed Sandal on Saturday.