Percy Park dent Sheffield’s title bid with narrow win

Percy Park's Ash Smith.
Percy Park's Ash Smith.

Prior to Percy Park’s penultimate league game of the season, the form book would suggest that table-toppers Sheffield just had to turn up and a bonus point win would crown them league champions.

But Park had other ideas with club captain Michael Langlands returning to league action after his eye operation to repair a detached retina had kept him out of the team for a considerable period of time.

Before the game there was a gathering of some 130 guests including two former presidents of the Rugby Football Union, and several former Percy Park players spanning seven decades who attended for lunch.

They were then treated to a display full of spirit and determination that put the icing on the cake of a good day for the club in the last home game of the 2014-15 season.

For much of the season Park have had to contend with a mounting injury and unavailability list which has seen some 46 different players selected for the first XV in league rugby so far, and Saturday was no different with two more players making their league debuts – Mal Donald and Austin Phillips.

And there was a new look back line too with flankers Leo Caulfield and Ethan Wilson selected on the wing and centre respectively.

Park kicked off with the tail wind but were penalised for bringing a Sheffield player down whilst still in the air and the visitors cleared the ball to touch back in Park territory.

The home side tackled with determination and forced Sheffield into several errors and turnovers.

Ash Smith had his first penalty chance on six minutes but the kick hit the post and bounced out, however, he was on target on the quarter hour to give Park a 3-0 lead.

The game was evenly poised for most of the first half, although Sheffield did cross the line but were held up and awarded a five-metre scrum that Park defended well.

On 31 minutes another Sheffield attack near the Park line saw Toby Davison sin binned for playing the ball on the ground and the visitors opted for the scrum. Sheffield secured the ball that was picked up by No.8 Jonny France who was tackled, and there was a suspicion of a knock-on but referee Greg Dawson judged the ball had gone backwards. The Yorkshiremen shipped the ball wide and eventually crossed for the score, but full-back Andy Hodgson was unable to make the conversion.

From the restart Percy Park camped in Sheffield territory and a rampaging run by Donald was stopped just short of the line by a shoulder charge from back row Dave Bradford, who was shown a yellow card for the illegal tackle.

There was some discussion, but Park quite rightly took the kick and the points on offer to go back into the lead 6-5, which was how the half ended.

The second half was much the same as the first with neither side being able to gain a foothold in the game, although Park’s top try scorer Andy Dunn crossed the line for what everyone thought to be a try, apart from the man in the middle who awarded a five-metre scrum for a knock-on.

Some injudicious back chat changed the scrum to a penalty and fly-half Jimmy Pearson kicked the ball some 80 metres to pin Park back in their own 22 as they tried to run the ball out of defence.

Sheffield were awarded a number of penalties which, rather than the kick points on offer, they opted first for the kick to the corner, and then from two further penalties they took quick taps, but through resolute defence they were unable to cross the Park line.

Hodgson did kick a penalty on 75 minutes to take his side back in front 8-6 and Park had a nervous few minutes trying to regain possession into the strong westerly wind.

Percy Park were then given a penalty on the Sheffield ten-metre line and Ash Smith converted to put his side back in front with the slenderest of leads at 9-8.

Inexplicably, experienced fly-half Jimmy Pearson kicked the restart beyond the Park dead ball area, and the home side was given the put-in to the scrum on half way.

The final three minutes of added time seemed like an eternity as Sheffield were eventually awarded a free kick from a scrum inside the Park half. In the haste to take a quick tap, the ball was knocked on and the final whistle went as Percy Park celebrated the win that sees them stay in fifth spot in the league.

Meanwhile, Ilkley, who prior to the game were in the play-off spot, had won at Driffield with a bonus point, so they now go top with a win next week securing the automatic promotion place to National League 3 as champions.

Next week the Percy Park first XV travel to Rochdale for their final game of the season.

Meanwhile the Lions play Alnwick for the fifth time this season in the second leg of the Candy Plate Final. The Lions take a 50-point advantage into the game following their 70-15 win a couple of weeks ago in the first leg.