St Albans Centurions came agonisingly close to posting their first win in their National League 3 debut with a comeback of the season contender only to lose to a last minute try. The Centurions trailed 16-0 after 47 minutes and looked set for a hammering against a Teesside team who had lost just once in the last two seasons.
But 23 minutes later it was 16-all after and incredible turnaround in the flow of the game and only former Centurion Chris Strong robbed the home side of a point when he touched down in the corner in the last minute.
A knock on from the kick off by the Centurions set the pattern for the first half as a string of basic errors, ill-discipline and nervousness enabled a physical Teesside to take control of the game. Although they only had a try to hooker Graeme Lupton and two goals from half-back Gowing to show for their efforts, it seemed clear that the visitors - who had flown down for the game - were going to win. St Albans had already lost Australian forwards Scott Drewe and Quentin Kersh through injury and their wingers looked outclassed against the Teesside speedsters Pitt and Evans. When young Matthew Aristazabal dropped a routine high ball at the start of the second half, enabling Evans to race in unopposed, and then the slight Pitt showed superb pace to burn off Steve Toon's chase to make it 16-0, St Albans looked well beaten.
But on the hour mark, Kersh drove over after tremendous work from the lively hooker Leigh Strid to make history with the Centurions' first try in the National League, and Toon converted as St Albans took control.
When Teesside's Mason - a repeat offender - was sent to the sin-bin and reacted by throwing a water bottle into the crowd and challenging spectators - the game appeared to change. Immediately Cents' Man of the Match Jon Warner burst away to score and Toon converted to make it 12-16 and three minutes later the crowd on Woollams' terrace was whooping with glee when Nick Walker jinked over in the far corner to make it 16-16. Toon was unable to convert in a strong wind and it left an anxious ten minutes for both sides.
Eventually Teesside's pressure told when they kept the ball alive on their last tackle, Boyd feeding Strong who reached out and broke St Albans' hearts with a cruel winning score.
The Centurions were by no means demoralized with the defeat against a side expected to challenge for the National League Three title. "There was plenty of hope for the season out there," said St Albans coach Peter Tonkin. "We went off our game plan after five minutes which doesn't help, so I told them at half-time to do what we have planned all week to do. We only completed about four sets of six out of 16 in the first half and went far too high in tackles on their big blokes.
But it was our first game with this 17 and Teesside have been a top side for two years. Jon Warner is a novice in rugby league terms but he played very well and his try lifted us all. I'm very pleased with how things went in the end."
ST ALBANS 1. Toon 2. Gunnell 3. Miller 4. Walker 5. Aristazabal 6. Eisenhuth 7. Wortley 8. Edwards 9. Strid 10. Warner 11. Molyneux 12. Drewe 13. Kersh. SUBS 14. Stokes 15. Yates 16. Thomas 17. Saunders Scorers: Kersh (60), Warner (67), Walker (70) tries. Toon 2 goals.
TEESSIDE 1. Boyd 2. Pitt 3. Stewart 4. Mason 5. Evans 6. Walker 7. Gowing 8. Marriott 9. Lupton 10. Dodsworth 11. Norman 12. Strong 13. Darby. SUBS 14. McLAren 15. Armstrong 16. Robinson 17. Garbutt
Scorers: Lupton (9), Evans (43), Pitt (47), Strong (79) tries. Gowing 2 goals.
ST ALBANS CENTURIONS head to Wilderspool, home of Warrington Wolves, on Saturday. Fortunately, they will not be playing the Super League side, but Woolston Rovers, the famous Warrington amateur club who are using Wilderspool for their National League home.
It will be the second Super League ground that St Albans have played on in a month, having been to Castleford Tigers for a pre-season friendly. The chance to play on a ground made famous by league legends such as Brian Bevan, Jonathan Davies and Allan Langer should stir the passions in a Centurions side keen to make amends for last Saturday's first half performance which cost them the game.
Woolston were beaten 16-13 at Convetry in their NL3 debut last week so a tight game is on the cards.
THE CENTURIONS are still looking for sponsors at all levels. "We had a magnificent turnout on Saturday at Woollams and everybody I spoke to seemed to enjoy the day," said Centurions spokesman Gavin Willacy. "We were delighted by the number of new spectators who came, especially all the OA members, and it was good to see our old fans make the journey over to our new home. Now we need as many of those fans to bring sponsors to the club - whether that is a player sponsorship at just ?20 or a full club/main shirt sponsor at ten times that."
Anyone wishing to get involved with the Centurions in any capacity should call Gary Tetlow on 07713472091.