HARTLEPOOL Rovers showed their best and worst sides at the Friarage.
Their narrow defeat to Northern effectively, if not mathematically, condemned them to relegation to Durham Northumberland One rugby next season.
When Rovers were good, as they were for just about all the second half, they were very, very good.
But the first period, bar the closing minutes, saw the Whites at their worst and some woeful defence left them staring down the barrel, looking every inch a team dead and buried.
At one stage, Rovers trailed 18-0 to Northern whose lightning-fast backs had run the home defence ragged with a superb display of attacking play. To their immense credit, Rovers came back from the dead and had the Geordies reeling.
That the Friaragemen ended up the losing side was arguably due to the visitors’ stand-off Andy Sutherland. The number 10 had been the difference in the earlier game at McCracken Park and he turned in another virtuoso performance with an 18-point haul, including the vital final 10.
For Rovers, Brian Foreman was in superb form, with many telling runs and both Steve Barnfield and Michael Railton built on their impressive displays at Morpeth.
In the pack, Ian Pinchen came off the bench to notch a brace of tries and Darren Smith also rounded off a good game with a try. Stewart Grazier was as wholehearted as ever and didn’t deserve to be on the losing side.
“Before the match I said I wanted a performance and, overall, I think I got one,” player-coach Alan Brown told SportMail.
“We gave them the first half, really, by standing back instead of hitting them. We leaked some soft tries.
“But we showed character to come back and a great deal of grit, intensity and ability.
“We have players of quality here and the team coming together now will do well next season.
“Pinhead (Ian Pinchen) came off the bench as an impact player and Steve Smith did well on his first game back.
“We still need to play well for longer spells.
“But I was pleased with the second half and the way the lads shared and revelled in our scores.”
The Friarage pitch was in good condition despite heavy rain and allowed for running play by both teams, with Northern being the first to show.
There seemed nothing on when Chris Robson was tackled on the home 22, but the ball popped up in the air and Dave O’Sullivan was there to catch it and race to the line, Sutherland converting and then slotting an 11th-minute penalty.
Rovers chose the completely wrong option after 20 minutes when they ignored a 5-2 advantage and kicked to the blindside.
Northern counter-attacked through Phil James and Tom Evans to the Rovers 22, where Sutherland kicked another penalty.
The restart was a disaster for the hosts and great running and passing saw O’Sullivan give the scoring pass to Chris Stewart, the prop being an unlikely support player.
Northern should have scored again from the kick-off when they raced upfield, but Barnfield was first to Harry Clark’s grubber kick to the line.
Rovers made a hash of a spell of pressure on the Northern line, but recovered their poise to pull five points back just before the break when long passes from Thomas King to Chris Sainty and then Grazier saw the flanker touch down.
In the second half Andrew Dring picked up from a five-metre scrum and fed the supporting Darren Smith, who dived over by the right post, Sainty adding the extras.
Sutherland then went wide with a 29-metre penalty and a speculative 35-metre drop goal, with Rovers then responding to take a deserved lead.
Railton ran strongly and cut inside from his wing, with the pack taking over to maul to the line, where Ian Pinchen squeezed over, Sainty kicking an excellent touchline conversion.
Rovers were now rampant and they declined a kickable penalty, opting for a catch and drive.
The move worked a treat and after Michael Tucker’s initial charge was halted, Ian Pinchen finished off the move to make the lead 24-18.
Northern then made a rare visit to the home half and left with seven points, Sutherland receiving to go under the posts and converting, to give his side a one point lead, 25-24.
With two minutes to go Sutherland extended the lead to four points with a well-struck 39-metre penalty. Rovers used the remaining four minutes of play to hammer away at Northern but despite good runs by Tucker and Ian Pinchen the visitors held out.
But Rovers took two bonus points, courtesy of running in four tries and for losing by fewer than seven points.