Aire improved but downed at Knottingley
By Harley Stevenson-Cocks
Performance much improved for Aire but the result still not quite there
Aire travelled to Knottingley this past weekend, a team Aire beat at home in the Cup last season but lost to away in the league, with the return fixture not played because of the congested backlog of fixtures running into summer. Aire's performance last week vs Leeds Corinthians was much improved compared to recent weeks and they were hoping to build on that against opposition who had put local rivals Hemsworth to the sword in their latest game, a performance that must have been so good it convinced the Hemsworth centre to defect and line up for them this week!
With a few unavailable players, Aire named a changed lineup from last week's close loss to Corinthians. Martyn Booth started at hooker in a Lewis Eastwood and Tim Baxter prop-sandwich (delicious), Chris Chapman and Jonny Mackey were joined in the back row by Alan Justham, and in the second row Fred Armstrong was partnered by head coach Simon Davies in what turned out not to be a typo for the absent Sy Hill (both equally deserving of the nickname "Big Si"). In the backs, Stuart Wilson and Ollie Catherall continued at half-back, Lewis Myers joined Harley Stevenson-Cocks in the centres, and Iain Craven returned from injury to start at fullback alongside wings Steffan Newport and Jamie Sykes. The team was completed on the bench by Rich Lister making his comeback after the opening league fixture, Oliver Wolfenden, Adam Bishop and another injury-returnee in Anthony Clitheroe.
In greasy conditions, Aire kicked off and immediately Knottingley sought to assert themselves in the game. Aire did well to repel early Knottingley pressure, soaking up several phases and largely keeping the opposition at bay in their own half. Knottingley eventually resorted to kicking for territory, but a weak chase gave Aire plenty of time to clear or counter and they found themselves with plenty of ball in the Knottingley half early on. Credit particularly to Iain Craven and Jamie Sykes for dealing with high and/or bouncing balls in tricky conditions. Unfortunately, the finishing touch just wasn't quite there for Aire and they found themselves losing the ball in the Knottingley 22m either through dropped balls or turnovers. However, they did well to keep Knottingley in their own half, helped by dominance in the lineout and scrum, and at one point looked to be over the line but to their credit Knottingley held Aire up over the line.
Aire pressure at the scrum forced another short Knottingley clearance, however, and they looked to advance again. Regrettably, loose play from Aire at the Knottingley 22m saw them win turnover ball. Putting boot to ball, the advancing attacking players had the edge on Aire's backpedalling defence and ultimately the Hemsworth Knottingley centre touched down for a converted score against the run of play. 7 - 0.
Aire were frustrated but knew that the bounce of the ball can be a cruel mistress, they just had to tighten up when in possession. From the kick off, Aire were back in the Knottingley half with ball in hand, and their sustained possession was well defended by Knottingley, if at times illegally with a number of high tackles surprisingly not seeing them reduced in number. Unfortunately, it was more loose Aire play that saw Knottingley sneak in another try against the run of play. Turnover ball on halfway found the Knottingley second row who burst through the Aire defence, then had the audacity to chip ahead for himself. As the saying goes, fortune favours the brave and the big lad was rewarded by a fortuitous bounce for an unconverted score and an unlikely 12 - 0 lead for the home team.
Aire were still not disheartened despite the scoreline, but were unable to lodge any points themselves by the time the whistle blew for half-time. Ultimately, one poor ruck and one missed tackle had been capitalised on by Knottingley, whereas Aire had been unable to convert their own pressure into points.
In the second half, Knottingley found themselves with a bit more possession and territory than the first and they looked to capitalise on this. However, Aire's defence was good and some strong tackling by the likes of Christopher Chapman, Lewis Eastwood and Martyn Booth kept them at bay for large parts. Despite this, Knottingley managed to spread the ball wide eventually and found themselves with a 2 on 1 which was executed for 19 - 0. Aire knew they would need to react quickly or Knottingley, with their tails up, would be happy to add more scores.
Aire at least had the upper hand in the scrum and lineout, Simon Davies pinching a few Knottingley overthrows to ensure he enjoyed his fair share of contact on his return. Unfortunately, despite the set piece dominance, Knottingley found themselves securing a try bonus point during their longest phase of play in the Aire 22m. Several phases on the Aire line were repelled but eventually they managed to sneak over for a 26 - 0 lead, a very flattering scoreline considering each team's respective performances.
Aire then managed to pull together and regain some momentum and rhythm in attack. Good carries in the backs by Lewis Myers and Anthony Clitheroe, as well as forwards Christopher Chapman and Alan Justham, led the charge for Aire. Again, the high tackle count for Knottingley increased to near double figures for the match, but still they managed to retain 15 players on the pitch. With lengthy possession in the Knottingley 22m, a score for Aire was sure to come but unfortunately the greasy conditions meant the ball was lost for a 5m scrum to Knottingley. Aire, however, got the nudge on and from the resulting scramble at the base Alan Justham reacted quickest and he managed to pinch the ball and dot down, Ollie Catherall adding the extras for a score of 26 - 7.
Aire knew time was running out but they did well to work themselves back into Knottingley territory, aided by an ever increasing penalty count in their favour. However, despite multiple phases, Knottingley's defence was good. Firstly, Oliver Wolfenden looked to have scored but enough Knottingley bodies got under to hold him up. Shortly after, Aire looked to be over again only for Knottingley's scramble defense to come good for a second time in quick succession. Ultimately, Aire were unable to breach the line and the referee called time on the match for a final score of 26 - 7.
Though the scoreline looked bad, Aire know that they put in probably their best performance of the season at a notoriously hostile away ground, and they will be particularly pleased with their set piece dominance despite the absence of some regular first time lumps in the pack. However, they will rue a few moments of poor composure in attack and defence which meant they were unable to convert their own chances, but Knottingley did theirs.
Credit must also be passed on to Heidi Reynolds for taking on head coach duties alongside the physio role with Simon Davies on the field. You can only imagine the delight on her face when in the full-time huddle Si said "I think I might start playing again".
Next up, Aire have Wensleydale at home who will come to Nunroyd full of confidence having won their last few games, including keeping Aire scoreless in the cup a few weeks ago. Aire will be looking to build on their improving performances over the past couple of weeks, and would love your support to cheer them on - KO 2:15pm.
Man of the Match - Christopher Chapman was chosen by Knottingley for being a menace in defence and carrying hard in attack all game. As a driver, he was unfortunately unable to indulge in the post-match horn of beer, but young Jamie Sykes duly stepped up and showed how it's done - probably finishing with enough time to down another before the Knottingley MOTM finished his own. Oh, the youth of today...