Hartlepool Rovers could and should have won Saturday’s game at Blyth and only have themselves to blame for failing to do so.
For the second week in a row, Rovers scored with less than a minute on the clock with Liam Austwicke repeating the dose that Ben Cushlow had meted out to Ponteland on home turf.
This superb start saw the visitors lead 10-0 with only eight minutes played but despite dominating the first half they only led 13-10 at the break having failed to convert pressure into points.
Blyth went into the match as league leaders with a 100 per cent record but tainted by an alleged “easy” sequence of fixtures, including three home games at Plessey Road.
The Northumbrians had yet to face a club in the top half of the table but, as the old adage goes, you can only beat whatever team is put in front of you.
Such was Rovers’ first half showing that a second away win seemed to be on the cards but the Whites lost shape and direction after half time and Blyth, after taking the lead on 42 minutes, started to play to their strengths.
Those strengths were the big front three and the right foot of veteran Andy Sutherland.
The front row looked susceptible to running short of steam as the match progressed but Rovers failed to move them around the park.
Rovers also failed to close Sutherland down and he simply either put boot to ball straight away or broke the gain line and then thumped it upfield.
The Friaragemen left town with a losing bonus point but it should have been four for the win and games like Saturdays have to be won if Rovers are to secure a top four position.
This should be the least of their ambition.
The problem areas for Rovers seem to be: Confidence taking a knock the minute the opposition score, lacking shape at critical times that weakens both attacking and defensive capabilities, a reluctance to do ‘the dirty work’ on the ground. Players are waiting for another man to do that work and too often it turns out to be an opponent, the side looks fit but is not using that fitness over the 80 minutes, the lack of both leadership and a cutting edge in the backs.
Rovers had injury and unavailability issues on Saturday as coach Carl Robinson alluded to after the match but these can’t be blamed for the loss.
Players of the recent past such as Clive Potts would take the game by the scruff of the neck when times got tough while the likes of Simon Rutherford, Phil Hall and Robinson himself performed the reader of the game role in the backline.
There was a dream start with Austwicke picking off a pass on the Blyth 22 to race to the line, Chris Sainty converting.
The number 10 then saw an 18 metre penalty rebound from the left upright before extending the lead with a slightly longer-range 25 metre effort on eight minutes.
Half chances then saw Andrew Flounders unable to take an offload from Tom King and Lee Maddison then looked set for home only for play to be brought back for a forward pass.
Rovers looked to have held out after bursts by Karl Rose, Craig Turnbull and John Kelly but then leaked a soft try when Kelly picked off an attempted clearance kick for a simple run-in, Sutherland converting.
Almost immediately, Sainty slotted a 21-metre penalty but Sutherland cancelled this out after 37 minutes when Stewart Grazier received a yellow card.
The second half started well for Rovers with Sainty kicking his third penalty from the restart to give Rovers a 16-10 lead.
These three points were immediately more than wiped out when Rovers failed to secure the ball from the kick off and Blyth took the lead for the first time.
Tighthead Michael Barber made the initial break and, with a huge numerical advantage on the openside, Sutherland received to put fellow centre Callum Bradwell in.
Sutherland added the extra points and without any degree of possession the hosts led 17-16.
Sainty went well wide with a 37 metre penalty after 46 minutes and the White Shirts were then saved by a forward pass.
The match now entered a dour period of midfield stalemate with neither side showing any creativity and Rovers failing to make any impression whilst Blyth had Dean Langdown in the sin bin.
Sutherland put a 21-metre penalty over with five minutes to play but the 20-16 lead didn’t look that secure as Rovers stormed upfield.
Grazier, sub Anthony Hanley and Flounders were then all held a metre short of the try line and Rovers somehow allowed themselves to be penalised for holding on as the pack hammered away at the line.
With time up and needing to keep hold of the ball and keep it alive, Rovers kicked it away. It was that kind of afternoon.
Afterwards, Robinson was a perplexed figure, saying, “Last week I remember saying we were guilty of dwelling on negatives. Today it was difficult to find many positives.
“I don’t want to sound bitter but we have lost to arguably the worst team we have played this season.
“We started really well again and had forward pressure and good defence but once we’d let them score their first try our game intensity dropped and our lead was never enough nor secure.
“I know that we were without the likes of Andrew Dring, the Barnfields (Steven and Michael), James Evens and Jonny Cushlow and at one time that might have meant we’d struggle. But we’re better than that now and I honestly thought we’d get a result.
“Leadership and ownership of the ball as well as desire are all needed to win in any sport, but especially rugby, and we fell down in these areas,” Robinson went on.
“Liam (Austwicke) had the ball maybe three times and it hardly made it to the wingers.
“For some reason we sat on the ball at penalties instead of taking a quick tap and that allowed Blyth to fall behind the ball and regroup.
“Last season we watched Sutherland belt the ball down the pitch at every opportunity and he had the same luxury today.”
Blyth: C Grey, J Grey, Sutherland, Bradwell, Bostock, Kelly, Smithson (c), Brown, Stephenson, Barber, Rose, Turnbull, Langdown, Long, Smith. Subs used: Fraser, Baxter, Clark. Penalties awarded 11, kicked 2, missed 0; scrums won 15; lineouts won 11
Tries: Kelly 23, Bradwell 42; conversions: Sutherland 23, 42; penalties: Sutherland 37, 75
Rovers: Austwicke, B Cushlow, Mulvihill, Grand, Gunn, Sainty, King, Tucker, Flounders, Wise (c), Little, Pinchen, Church, Maddison, Grazier. Subs used: Power, Hanley, Pelser. Penalties awarded 13, kicked 3, missed 2; scrums won 13; lineouts won 8
Try: Austwicke 1; conversion: Sainty 1; penalties: Sainty 8, 25, 41
Referee: Finlay Brown (Northumberland)
Sent off: none; sin bin: Grazier 37; Langdown 52