Hartlepool Rovers put in an abject second half display to go down 33-15 to Stockton at the Friarage on Saturday.
Just as at West Hartlepool the week before, the scoreline didn’t reflect the match situation and the half-time lead Rovers enjoyed of 10-9 was nearer to the mark.
That said, the Whites had kept the visitors in the game by conceding three needless penalties at rucks and which undid much of the good work elsewhere around the park.
After half-time, Rovers struggled to contain some good running by Stockton and were guilty of some awful white line fever with penalties, scrums and turnovers all cropping up to waste some excellent attacking opportunities.
The defeat saw Rovers drop a place to 11th, with Stockton consolidating their good start to the season by remaining in fourth.
The top four was the target set by player-coach Steve Smith in the close season and one that had looked a reasonable bet given the pre-season enjoyed by Rovers.
After the wheels came off at Northern and the West defeat, the Friarage faithful were already getting a little nervous and Saturday’s result has only heightened their anxiety with, before the first month is out, the fans looking at how to get out, and stay out, of the bottom four.
Granted, Rovers have played three out of the top four, two of them away from home, but, despite an awful start to the season, local rivals Horden and Peterlee have climbed above them and only rock-bottom and potential whipping boys Whitby with 60 points have scored fewer than Rovers’ 67 and only the bottom three have a worse negative points difference.
There was a great start for Rovers with Ryan Foreman picking off a Stockton pass inside the home 22 and he took full advantage of the interception to race some 80 metres to the line and then convert for a 7-0 lead after only two minutes.
Stephen Jones went wide with a 23 metre penalty on 12 minutes but kicked three-pointers from 35 metres and 24 metres after 14 and 25 minutes to cut Rovers’ lead to 7-6.
Sub Liam Wood caught the kick off ball and took play to the away 22. Rovers made hard work of some decent possession and had to do with a Foreman penalty from 28 metres.
A great show and go by Foreman on his own 22 and some upfield passing set up a chance for Tom Stead but the try didn’t come and Foreman pushed a 24 metre penalty wide with Jones showing better direction to put over his third penalty after 37 minutes.
Rovers hit the interval still ahead 10-9 but having butchered far too many chances by the polar opposites of rushing things or taking too much time.
The Friaragemen enjoyed a full 10-minute spell of pressure at the start of the second half but failed to convert the pressure close to the Stockton line until, finally, Tom Stead powered over after some good handling and the lead was 15-9.
Stockton had been winning some good lineout ball and they used this set piece to hit the home 22.
Rovers looked to have held out when they had a five metre scrum after holding Stockton up but a poor clearance kick saw Jonny Horner counter-attack and put Steve Bartliff in at the Railway Corner and Jones’ conversion put Stockton into the lead by a point, 16-15, on 55 minutes.
Rovers were hit by a sucker punch four minutes later when, with their next possession, Stockton swarmed forward in numbers, Stephen Tampin touching down in the same corner, Jones’ extra points increasing the lead to 23-15.
Stockton had taken their two chances and changed the total complexion of the game and a 34 metre penalty by Jones after 68 minutes put them two scores ahead, 26-15.
The White Shirts had shown too much individualism and not enough team work and graft and paid the price for being in disarray when Horner scored with the last play of the game, Jones converting.
“This feels even worse than losing to West,” said Smith after the match. “The score flattered Stockton as it had West. In the end they deserved the win but it’s deflating to have lost again.
“The level of fitness today was at a worrying level and we offered nothing at all really, no team work, in the second half.
“We have to play better and win at Ponteland on Saturday.”
Rovers: Rochester, S Railton, Burnside, Gunn, Maguire, Foreman, Pelser, I Flounders, T Stead, N Stead, Langley, Lloyd, Jeffery, Dring, Whitehead (c). Subs used: S Smith, Wood, O’Callaghan
Tries: Foreman 2; T Stead 50; conversion: Foreman 2; penalty: Foremen 28
Penalties awarded 11, kicked 1, missed 1; scrums won 6; lineouts won 9, 2 stolen
Stockton: Horner, Crozier, Thompson, Tampin, Bartliff, Jones, Thwaites, Conway, Gray, McHugh, Highfield, Taylor, Doherty (c), Healey, Powell. Subs used: Yellow, Sutton, White
Tries: Bartliff 55; Tampin 59; Horner 80; conversions: Jones 55, 59, 80; penalties: Jones 14, 25, 37, 68
Penalties awarded 9, kicked 4, missed 1; scrums won 56; lineouts won 15, 4 stolen
Referee: Philip Walton (Durham)