ONLY one team can surely now stop West Hartlepool from lifting the North One East championship – themselves.
West regained top place in the league when they thumped Team Northumbria at Brinkburn on Saturday.
The bonus point win, allied to a cliffhanging 33-32 defeat for previous leaders Percy Park at Cleckheaton, restored the side coached by Kevan Oliphant, Tim Sawyer and Stuart Hardy into pole position.
Percy Park did leave Yorkshire with two bonus points, but West now have a three-point gap at the summit.
While it’s not enough of a gap to be getting the champagne chilled at Catcote Road, it’s certainly a significant moment in the title race.
West have a game in hand and victory at relegation-threatened Northern would mean the difference would be at least seven points between the two title rivals.
It would give West the “luxury” of being able to lose one of their remaining fixtures.
And with tough away trips to Carlisle and Wheatley Hills to follow, that’s no bad thing.
While West face the prospect of losing their skipper Jonny Boatman (toe op) and vice-captain Anth Carr (work commitments) in the coming weeks, the side looks in good shape, on the evidence of Saturday’s easy win. The way the contest began it seemed as though Team Northumbria had sent their second XV to Catcote Road.
West blitzed the youthful Newcastle side with four rapid-fire tries and a landslide looked on the cards.
Andrew Foreman started the ball rolling in the fifth minute when he continued his rich run of form.
The number nine went blind from a scrum on the Northumbria 22 and shrugged off the attentions of three defenders to dive over in the right corner.
The left corner was the scene of the next touchdown six minutes later.
Adam Larkin had almost got over down the right, but when the ball was moved left, his wing twin Andrew Cheslin took a tricky catch and finished well next to the corner flag.
It was 15-0 on 13 minutes when Stephen Stockdale went over to the right of the posts after an excellent move from the hosts.
The bonus point arrived six minutes later. West first attacked down the left and while they got no joy on that side, they switched play to the right where Cheslin came into the line on his “wrong” wing to put Larkin over for another great score.
Gareth Foreman converted with a magnificent kick.
At that stage Northumbria looked like they were about to wave a white flag and surrender, especially when they could not find an easy touch with a routine kick from their first penalty.
However, the students began to show their attacking threat and their back three of Thomas Harrison, Sean Bellon and Joe Rowntree certainly had plenty of gas.
A bright move and kick ahead from full back Harrison almost put Bellon in, but the former Sunderland winger could not gather cleanly with the line at his mercy.
Northumbria did get over the home line on the half-hour, but referee Paul Candlish ruled they had been held up.
They were made to rue those missed opportunities because West ran in a brilliant fifth try four minutes from the break.
Liam Bailey, who will miss the next three matches, put in a trademark crunching tackle on half way to win West a turnover.
And they went forward with devastating results. Larkin looked favourite to score only to be stopped five metres out but Carl Miller was up in support to finish smartly from close in. Gareth Foreman converted and West were home and dry at 29-0 up.
They remained positive in attack in the second half, centres Gavin Robinson and Luke Watson again influential, but the only try was an all-Foreman affair.
Andrew took a quick tap penalty on 68 minutes inside the away 22 and younger brother Gareth had a simple run-in from 10 metres. Gareth added his third conversion to finish with 11 points.
Gareth also ensured the home line remained intact for the second successive Saturday.
Bellon looked clean through after good work by Ash Goodwin and Tom Schofield and a try seemed inevitable, only for Foreman to down the winger in front of the West posts.
Team Northumbria, who were forced to go to uncontested scrums for the last 10 minutes, almost scored when prop Ollie Longmore was held up from a tap penalty in the 72nd minute. But their only reward was a 46th-minute Rowntree penalty.
The day belonged to West – and so will the title if they can keep this run going.