Harrogate RUFC produced a fine attacking display to beat Birkenhead Park in National Three North, but defensive frailties meant that their victory was nowhere near as comfortable as it should have been.
A much-changed visiting starting XV raced into a 15-0 lead inside 18 minutes, and although this advantage was only briefly surrendered, continued lapses in concentration meant that the hosts were always in the game when ‘Gate should have been out of sight.
From the start, Harrogate winger Andrew Lawson made the first of many excellent high ball takes, but unluckily lost possession.
Park’s Gareth Coy was then yellow-carded for a high tackle and the away pressure continued.
Dominant Aces scrummaging led to a series of driving mauls and Charley Purkiss-McEndoo squeezed over for the opening try.
Harrogate’s new centre combination of Luke Riddell and Ewan Miller then began to strut their stuff and they combined well to put Dave Doherty clear for the next try of the afternoon and a 10-0 lead.
As Park looked for a response, Luke Swan, their outstanding flanker, ran strongly from inside his own half but was contained by the away defence and Doherty was able to counter-attack from deep.
Skilful handling from Oli Rosillo and Riddell then saw Lawson sent clear for his side’s third touchdown, taking the scoreline to 15-0.
Birkenhead’s opening score then illustrated the difficulties referees have at this level without the help of assistant-referees.
Blatant handling in the scrum, on match official Mr Elliott Lewis’ blind-side, allowed the home team quick ball and a fine cross kick was well taken by winger Elliott Magdin for a try converted by the lethal boot of former Ireland international Simon Mason.
A period of loose Harrogate play followed when they were also on the wrong end of some apparently inconsistent refereeing decisions.
Back from the sin-bin, Coy went over the line for Park, then an adjudged offside offence led to a Mason penalty goal which levelled the scores at 15-15.
Birkenhead were then repeatedly penalised for offences in the red zone as ‘Gate threatened their try-line with a series of driving mauls, but no further sanctions followed.
This pattern continued from the start of the second period. A Harrogate scrum drove strongly for the line and Park illegally kicked the ball clear.
Only a penalty was awarded by Mr Lewis, but Harrogate’s next try came from a well-constructed backs attack and Lawson ran strongly to finish in the corner.
This earned the visitors a bonus point and Luke White’s conversion made took the score to 22-15.
Unfortunately, there was a clash of heads as the try was scored meaning that Lawson had to leave the field and was unable to return.
Good scrum ball led to a Danny Matthews half-break which was well supported by Doherty whose clever dummy completely fooled the home defence, allowing him to register another try that was converted by White.
‘Gate continued to attack and, when Park tried to counter-attack from a defensive turnover, a Miller interception sustained the pressure.
However, a glut of penalties conceded by the visitors thwarted their attacks and Birkenhead gained an attacking line-out from which they were able to cross the whitewash.
Harrogate countered from the re-start, the hosts were penalised and White’s kick brought the score to 32-22.
This should have ended the game as a contest, but Park continued to battle and their pack won their first and only scrum of the day against the head.
Doherty’s men then went offside in defence, the penalty led to an attacking line-out and a bonus-point try was converted from the corner to leave the score 32-29 with five minutes remaining.
Having lost to Hull last time out after leading for the majority of the game and then conceding a late score, Harrogate were determined to avoid a similar fate.
Their backs clicked into gear again with White and Rosillo linking to create space for Doherty’s hat-trick touchdown in the closing stages.
The 37-29 scoreline finally put the match beyond the home team’s reach with so little time remaining, however a prodigious long-range penalty attempt from Mason, fully 50 metres out wide on the right, almost reduced the arrears, only to come back off an upright.