Hartlepool Rovers’ season is at a pivotal point after Saturday’s 34-19 defeat at Medicals.
Yet another hastily put-together line-up couldn’t produce the heroics that had seen the Whites defeat Consett 22-19 on home turf seven days earlier.
That win and a brave fightback victory at Gateshead had arguably papered over the cracks that had been appearing over several weeks in the defeats by Barnard Castle, Gosforth and Hartlepool.
The loss at Cartington Terrace should in no way be regarded as a criticism of the 18 players who made the trip to Heaton.
They showed the same spirit that had been so evident the week before when a disjointed team had taken to the field on home turf.
Already badly hit by unavailability, a further four cry-offs on match day saw former skipper Mark Power pressed into service at loosehead and Michael Barnfield, only just landed back in the country, and assistant coach Michael Henderson named on the bench.
The bottom line for Rovers is that it some 46 players have now appeared for the First XV and yet they can’t turn out three teams on a Saturday but for its strength and development, this has to happen.
This requires commitment and not finding every excuse not to play.
“We need to look at our overall strategy on current players and attracting newcomers when it comes to our player-base,” said Henderson.
“The numbers are there but not all at the same time and that is the key.
“That is taking nothing away from the guys who turn out week-in and week-out. They are deserving of every credit as are those lads who have had to come in at the last minute but more strength in depth is needed, I shouldn’t have had to be on the bench today.”
Rovers’ scrum was tested three times in the opening two minutes but it held firm and the visitors kept Medicals penned in their own 22 to deservedly take a 12th minute lead.
Taz Pelser brought Steven Barnfield into play and his through-kick was kept in play and then punted on by Steven Flounders’ footballing skills for the younger Barnfield brother to win the race to the ball. Daz Fawcett’s conversion made it 7-0.
The Medics hit back to score on their first visit to the Rovers’ half when Matthew Horrocks broke through the centre, releasing stand-off Joe Battle to finish it off under the posts for Marcus Brookes to add the simple conversion and put his side 10-7 up on 26 minutes with a 26-metre penalty.
A great break by Steven Barnfield nearly put Aaron Jeffery, Callum Whitehead, James Evens and Power in but the visitors kept plugging away and Whitehead powered over, Fawcett struck the right hand upright with his conversion making it 12-10.
When teams are up against it they sometimes need a little luck and the Friaragemen were hit on half time by one of three glaring mistakes made by Dr Moore.
The referee failed to blow a crooked home lineout throw, penalising Rovers for a subsequent knock on and Jack Oddie crossed from the set piece, Brookes’ conversion giving Medicals a 17-12 interval lead.
That scoreline was harsh on Rovers who had deserved to lead and things got worse five minutes into the second half when Horrocks burst through two tackles to offload to Battle who knocked on before gathering the ball to touchdown and the lead was now 22-12.
There was more controversy after 49 minutes when a quickly-taken lineout saw Battle set off from half-way and his mazy run and some weak tackling saw the number ten make it all the way to the line. Brookes added the conversion and it was now 29-12.
Fawcett tried to keep the scoreboard ticking-over but he went wide with a 30 metre penalty on 54 minutes.
The White Shirts sensed it wasn’t their day after 67 minutes when Brookes’ upper torso was clearly in touch before he grounded the ball. The linesman’s flag stayed down and the score was awarded for a 34-12 lead.
Rovers went back on the attack and Whitehead set up Pelser and Fawcett’s conversion cut the deficit to 34-19.
There was still time for Whitehead to rampage forward in a last-gasp attempt to secure a try-scoring bonus point but a knock-on brought the final whistle.
Medicals: Horrocks, Elwood, Oddie, Brookes, Gourbault, Battle, Baines (c), Jones, Bath, Clegg, Howard, Rooney, Colville, Hawe, Moore. Subs used: Tweddle, Kitchen, Lacey
Tries: Battle 18, 45, 49; Oddie 40; Brookes 67; conversions: Brookes 18, 40, 49; penalty: Brookes 26
Penalties awarded 10, kicked 1, missed 0; scrums won 10, 2 against the head; lineouts won 3
Rovers: Rochester, S Flounders, S Barnfield, Evens, Jeffery, Fawcett, Pelser, Power, Lidster, Wise (c), Langley, Ryan, Charters, O’Callaghan, Whitehead. Subs used: Buttery, M Barnfield, Henderson
Tries: S Barnfield 12; Whitehead 30; Pelser 80+2; conversions: Fawcett 12, 80+2
Penalties awarded 11, kicked 0, missed 1; scrums won 8; lineouts won 2
Other results: Barnard Castle 13 Stockton 24; Consett 17 Horden and Peterlee 24; Gateshead P Ryton P; Gosforth 39 Novocastrians 10; Hartlepool 29 Northern 32; South Shields Westoe 38 Middlesbrough 0