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Powergen Rugby League Challenge Cup First Round
Birkenshaw 22 St Albans Centurions 10.
Any trip to Cardiff's Millenium Stadium for the Final in May will have to be in a spectating capacity for the Centurions after falling at the first hurdle in their inaugural Powergen Rugby League Challenge Cup Challenge Cup campaign.
With just one friendly played in three months and without at least half a dozen first choice players from the side that finished fourth in National League 3 back in August - the Australian trio of Adam Cox, Leigh Strid and Nick Walker were all unavailable, Kiwi centre Rocky Edwards is back at Carcassonne in France, Steve Toon is injured and Brian Stokes had flu - the odds were stacked against St Albans. Birkenshaw are midway through their Pennine League season, had several former semi-pro players and were used to the wintery conditions.
The driving wind, rain and eventual hail that accompanied the club's first game in the famous 107-year-old competition, played on a hilltop pitch in a picturesque village outside Bradford, was a world away from the glamour of the latter rounds and summer rugby. But to their credit, the depleted Centurions dusted themselves off from the four hour bus trip and knuckled down to the job in hand.
The game could have been over as a contest in the first five minutes if Birkenshaw's three quarters on the left had not knocked on twice with the tryline beckoning. Then a forward pass and a foot in touch prevented two more opportunities from becoming tries. St Albans were on the rack, struggling terribly out wide, and with forward Jon Warner lasting just a couple of minutes before suffering a badly broken nose from an off-the-ball punch, it was looking ominous for the Hertfordshire side.
However, the pack of Scott Drewe, Alex Murphy, Richard Smith and John Longden started to make their presence felt down the centre of the field, and Welshman Matt Saunders made some of the tenacious ball-carrying bursts that marked him out as the Cents' star man on the day. As the half-hour mark passed scoreless, St Albans' self-belief grew and it was only when Birkenhsaw managed to keep the ball in hand long enough to complete an impressive passing move to allow Andy Hirst to score that the deadlock was broken. The former London Skolars stand-off converted his own try to give the men from Emmerdale country a 6-0 lead at the break.
The start of the second-half was quite a contrast. Five minutes in, former England Lionheart Smith made great progress up the middle, gaining the field position from which giant prop Alex Murphy plundered St Albans' historic first try in the Challenge Cup on his competitive return to the club after spells with Hemel and Luton. Skipper Tom Eisenhuth - playing at full-back in the absence of three alternatives - converted the try and three minutes later the Aussie went on a wonderful weaving run before setting up Saunders for a fine try to give the Cents a 10-6 lead. Eisenhuth, inexplicably, sliced the conversion from in front of the posts against the outside of the post. Fortunately that howler did not come back to haunt him.
Instead, Birkenshaw turned the tables, scoring two tries in three minutes themselves, through Richard Cousins and Mark Houlden, to restore their lead. With more than 20 minutes left and just eight points in it, St Albans needed to get down field and with the wind and rain behind them, they managed to drive forward time and again only to throw the opportunity away. When Eisenhuth knocked on when Birkenshaw were hanging on by their fingertips, his despair was doubled when he was sin-binned for dissent and missed the rest of the game. Moments later, with St Albans needing a point a minute to stay in the Cup, Drewe dropped a simple pass. It was all over.
Birkenshaw forward Cousins added salt to the Centurions' wounds by scoring a last minute try after an excellent break by scrum-half Neil Clarke to make the scoreline more reflective of the game as a whole but to disguise the tension and anguish of a thrilling second half.
St Albans headed back down the M1 frustrated by the result but knowing that with a hugely-understrength team they had given their all in appalling conditions and, if nothing else, could at least tell their grandchildren they have played in the world famous Rugby League Challenge Cup.
Centurions: Tom Eisenhuth, Greg Vincent, Matt Thomas, Dene Miller, Dave Bell, Jamie Zonta, Craig Gunnell, Scott Drewe, John Longden, Alex Murphy, Matt Saunders, Richard Smith, Graham Lumley. Subs (all used): Brian Molyneux, Jon Warner, Andy Weldon, Peter Williams.
** The Cents will now break for Christmas and the New Year and return to training in 2004 to prepare for the RLC Cup and National League 3 season which starts in Spring.