Harrogate RUFC’s long unbeaten run came to an end on Saturday when they were beaten 24-17 by National Three North leaders Preston Grasshoppers.
After seven wins and a draw from their opening eight fixtures of 2018, the Rudding Lane outfit found themselves 17-3 down at half-time, but rallied in the second period, grabbing two late tries to earn themselves a valuable losing bonus point.
And that point keeps Dave Doherty’s men in a promotion play-off spot, just ahead of third-placed Lymm and Hull, now fourth after missing out on the chance to snatch second position when they could only draw with Ilkley.
Saturday’s top-of-the-table showdown was dominated by the big Preston pack during the first 40, before Harrogate’s superior fitness eventually told as the match wore on.
Making full use of their set-piece dominance, the Hoppers’ first try came from a powerful scrum drive and flanker Ollie Trippier crashed over for an early 5-0 lead.
Their second score followed a similar pattern. The ‘Gate scrum was penalised and stand-off Alex Ward kicked long to gain them an attacking line-out in away territory.
The visitors were then penalised at the breakdown, Preston opted for a scrum and that provided the platform for Paul Arnold to touch down.
Harrogate eventually began to generate some forward momentum and Charley Purkiss-McEndoo made a powerful midfield break which took him into the home 22.
Jonny Coser was in support but a desperate tackle forced him into touch just short of the goal-line.
Luke White then fielded a steepling Preston clearance and cross-kicked for winger Harry Jukes.
Oli Rosillo was on hand to take possession, scything through the defence and dotting down under the posts, however, referee Matt Riley inexplicably disallowed the score but awarded a penalty which White duly kicked to trim the gap at 10-3.
Having got away with one, more Hoppers pressure followed and a gap was created for flanker Ally Murray to burst through for a try converted by Jake Squirrel.
Undeterred, ‘Gate kept coming and, towards the end of the half, Rosillo’s dazzling run saw him cut through the home defence.
Preston were penalised in defence, resulting in an attacking line-out. This appeared to lead to a Harrogate try, but Mr Riley again saw fit to disallow the effort and the sides went in to the interval with the score at 17-3.
Harrogate’s scrummaging got better as the game progressed and they definitely had the edge in the line-out where they stole several Preston throws, mainly through Coser and Sam Brady.
However, Preston’s final try, which arrived shortly after the resumption and secured them a bonus point, again came from a strong scrum.
Number eight Matt Lamprey crashed over the whitewash and Squirrel added the conversion to put the hosts in full control at 24-3.
With half an hour remaining, ‘Gate upped their game, forcing increasingly desperate home defence.
An Aarin Yorke interception was quickly passed to Andy Boyde who committed the tackler before finding substitute centre Luke Riddell, but what looked a promising attack eventually fizzled out.
At the other end of the field, another powerful Lamprey run ended when he was unceremoniously dumped by visiting scrum-half Danny Matthews.
Replacement flanker Martin Dodds also made his presence felt for the Rudding Lane outfit and full-back Rosillo produced several searing bursts as the away team finished the game strongly.
With Harrogate’s pack in the ascendency in the loose, Boyde drove through to score a try converted by White with two minutes left on the clock.
More was to come. In the dying moments, another ‘Gate driving maul led to a Tim Heaton touchdown.
In normal circumstances, the conversion attempt would have been reasonably straightforward, but it was the last kick of the match and Harrogate’s losing bonus point depended on it being landed.
However, ‘cool hand’ Luke White kept his nerve, kicked the ball between the uprights and the game was over at 24-17 with Doherty and his players likely wondering what might have been had either of their first-half ‘tries’ been allowed to stand.