Rotherham Phoenix vs. Aireborough 34-14
By James Underwood
"This could be Rotherham, or anywhere..."
This week saw an unfancied Aire side travel to South Yorkshire to face Rotherham Phoenix. The visitors have had a difficult start to the season, where they have failed to record a W, despite a number of positives in their performances and hoped to see their fortunes change in the South Riding. The squad heading to Phoenix included debutants in Oliver Wolfenden and Luke Buchan, along with Captain and Vice of the Crusaders James Underwood and Matty Jones. Necessitated by the ongoing injury problems across the club, and specifically in the back division.
Unfortunately, Aireborough’s issues as slow starters recurred again this weekend with 19 points shipped in the first 25 mins. The opening try going to the visitors as they dropped off tackles attempting to stop the home side too high. However, Phoenix didn’t have it all their own way in the opening exchanges, with Aire’s Captain and Fly Half Ollie Catherall taking an interception on the half way line, leaping like an NBA All Star to pinch a floated miss pass, and unlucky not to go in under the sticks.
Yet, two more tries for Phoenix followed, with the home side showing decent quality and the visitors competitive, but lacking end product. Bright sparks coming from the likes of the younger players such as Mikey Dolan, destructive in defence at flanker, and Jamie Sykes, who’s dancing feet often created gaps or half gaps.
Rotherham’s third try had come from close range, with Aire battling hard on their own line. However, they would see the wrong side of the referee’s whistle (not for the first time that day) with Lewis Eastwood taking an enforced 10 minute break, possibly in a case of mistaken identity with prop Charlie Middleton, for an infringement at ruck-time.
With ten minutes left of the half, and down to 14 men, Aire suddenly kicked into gear. Possibly fuelled by frustration at the referee’s decisions, or by their own gifting of a 19 point lead they started to make things happen, and soon they were deep in Phoenix’s 22. The pack working hard at lineouts and scrums, provided a solid platform of set piece. With a try coming from hooker Nick Jackson, controlling the ball at the back of rolling maul, a position usually reserved for No.8 Jonny Mackey.
Centre Nick Holdsworth added the extras and would soon cross the whitewash himself. The momentum having turned in Aire’s favour and they were within the Rotherham half soon again. A 5m scrum couldn’t be pushed over, and the relentless battering of the pack a metre out was failing to pay dividends. As such, scrum half Stu Wilson spun it out wide to Catherall who’s jinking run saw him come incredibly close once more. Wilson was quick to the ball and sent it wide, this time, with the merest glimpse of a gap, Holdsworth shimmed his way over. The wise head then adding the extras on his own try to close out the half.
The comeback before the break, reducing the deficit to just 5, meant that Aire’s confidence had been buoyed in a match that could have been over at half time had the scoring rate set in the first 20 minutes continued. However, several changes through injury were required, with Captain Ollie Catherall hurt as he went close at the end of the half. Leading to Wilson moving to 10, and Underwood coming on at 9. It also, saw flanker Chris Chapman assume the captaincy.
In the opening exchanges of the second period Phoenix threw it all at Aire, who defended resolutely. A number of 22 drop outs indicative of several essential moments of scramble defence from the likes of Jamie Sykes and Ollie Wolfenden from his wing, made it difficult to get out of their own half. Despite good defence, attacking opportunities were severely limited for the visitors, who worked hard in D but failed to make many inroads into the Rotherham half.
This strong defence from Aire saw Phoenix change tact slightly with a penalty aimed towards the posts for the first time in the game as they looked to move more than a score apart approaching the final 20 minutes. The kick was accurate and took the home side 8 points clear, leaving Aire to chase the game in the closing exchanges. It was around this point as the visitors looked to force their way back into the game that game started to fray a little around the edges, with a couple of ill-tempered moments, and the visitors finding themselves on the wrong side of the match official.
Replacement scrum half Underwood coming in for specific treatment from the referee- who singled him out with a dressing-down the player hadn’t experienced since his mother reprimanded him for locking his younger brother in the garage during their pre-teenage years. This hair dryer treatment from the official concluding with the instruction that “17 it is always you. I do not want to see you with the ball in your hands again”- quite a difficult instruction to follow in the 9 jersey.
Another converted try for the home side saw the game likely to move out of reach at 29-14, with Phoenix crossing the whitewash with a strong line cutting in at close range. More injuries saw more enforced changes as Head Coach Si Davies looked to organise what he had available. The finishing 15 fought hard, with several players in different positions from where they started, but they conceded once more in the dying moments of the match. Nick Holdsworth wrapping up a Rotherham player close to the line was called to release a tackled player by the referee, only for the ‘tackled’ player not to release the ball and to stroll over the line and add a further 5 points. In the remaining minutes from the kick off Aire stole the ball, and looked to keep the ball alive and come away with the final score but it wasn’t to be as the final whistle was blown.
Despite failing to win the match, Aire were able to take several positives from the match, having been competitive with a scratch squad away at a team that now sits at the top of Yorkshire 3. Club stalwart Jonny Mackey reminded the squad after the game that he had been at Aireborough long enough to have seen worse starts to the season: “If we stick together, if we work hard Monday and Wednesday [at training], these losses will start to become Ws”.
This writer sees the wisdom in the No.8’s words as Aire face a big week at training before a double header at home and a social in Guiseley. With a home fixture against Harrogate presenting an excellent opportunity to get the season back on track- we hope to see big availability and big support as Aire aim to put out two strong squads and claim a double W.
Men of the Match- Jamie Sykes & Stu Wilson
Youngster Jamie Sykes has already shown his quality in a first team shirt on numerous occasions, and Saturday was no exception. Tackling hard in the midfield at outside centre, and exciting with ball in hand- especially in broken play, where his fast feet and an eye for a gap always saw him make ground.
Stu Wilson showed his versatility this week, combining well with Catherall in the first half with his excellent distribution in their 9-10 combo, following this up in the second with a move to fly half where he continued to pull the strings on the pitch, despite being out of his preferred position.