THERE could not be a sterner test than to start a league campaign against a side having come down from the national leagues, but that was Park’s fate on Saturday – and they came through with flying colours.
In recent seasons, encounters with Billingham have been close, with Park generally dominating the forward battle and the Teessiders coming out ahead in the back division.
However, Park’s resurgence in the three-quarters over the last couple of seasons promised a keener contest.
Park were without the influential Martin Shaw who has moved to Monaco to embark upon a new career, and Andy Dunn made himself unavailable so Jonny Dubois came in at hooker for his league debut.
Billingham kicked off and immediately put Park under pressure.
The first piece of possession was quickly moved through the back line with slick handling showing the threat of Chris Hyndman and his men.
The visitors scored a superb try, finished off by full-back Peter Evans, with a training ground move involving a combination of cut out passes and run-arounds. Evans converted for an early 7-0 lead.
Although Billingham were an undoubted threat in the backs, Park’s forward pack was dominant in the scrum and lineout.
On 17 minutes Ali Blair scored after a good advantage was played by referee Peter Stentiford in his first level six game.
The ball was spun wide and Blair feigned to pass to his left to Ash Smith before scything through a gap to score. Marcus Rutter levelled the scores with the conversion.
Moments later Craig Fidler was sin binned for a professional foul, but with the Park pack down to seven men, they were still able to out scrummage the men in green and white.
And despite being down to 14 men, Park stretched their lead from a Rutter penalty after a high tackle on George Purdy.
With Park restored to their full compliment it was Billingham’s turn to play short handed for ten minutes when Evans was sin binned for another high tackle after Park had stolen a ball at the back of a lineout through Greg Dixon.
The ball was fed out to left wing Howard Stock who surged down the flank but was stopped in the visitors 22 with the tackle being judged dangerous.
The Rutter penalty on 36 minutes gave Park a half-time lead of 13-7.
Park started well in the second period and Blair scored his second try eight minutes in.
A good lineout to the back was spun to John Scott who gave a well time pass to Blair who had the strength to take several tacklers with him over the line close to the posts.
Rutter was again on target with the extra points to stretch the lead to 20-7.
Billingham were not out of the game by any stretch of the imagination, and with their potent backs they could score from anywhere on the pitch.
It was, however, a try from prop Steve Hutchinson, who barged his way over after several phases of play, which brought them back in the game.
Evans converted and the visitors were within six points.
Both sides had their chances to score, John Scott for Park made a sniping run and found a gap a few yards out only to slip on the greasy surface and the attack was halted.
Billingham were running everything and a good wide move out of defence saw Shepherd in space having beaten his man, but an amazing cover tackle by prop Joe Wafer, who ran a full 50 yards across field to get his man, brought the promising move to an end.
Sadly a good game was marred by the sending off of Park’s Michael Langlands on the hour.
The lock was clearing out in the ruck and was dismissed for allegedly punching.
Rutter and Evans exchanged penalties to take the score to 23-17.
Park retained possession in the forwards for the dying minutes of the game before skipper Scott kicked the ball into touch to bring the game to an end.
At Billingham, the second teams played out a close game.
The home side got off to a great start and at half-time were 17-0 up.
Park got their act together and scored tries through Thomas Turnbull, Adam Fidler and Paddy O’Keefe with Alun Barlow adding two conversions.
Park led 19-17 with the game almost won when the home side were awarded a penalty and with the last kick of the game Billingham snatched the win.
On Saturday the first XV travel to Mitford Road to take on Morpeth while the Lions and Morpeth Reivers play at Preston Avenue, kick-off 3pm.