Harrogate RUFC lost their stranglehold on National League Three North’s top-spot as Sandal ended their club record winning streak with a 19-8 win at Claro Road.
Handling errors and costly penalties haunted Graham Siswick’s Harrogate side throughout as they failed to earn a bonus point in the disappointing defeat.
And, with promotion rivals Chester battering Penrith 41-6, ‘Gate’s automatic promotion chances have been severely dented with just one game to go.
Heading into the match, Siswick’s side carried the momentum expected of a table topping side, with 11 successive victories.
But the away side arrived on Claro Road with their own undefeated streak of form stretching back exactly six months, including 16 wins and a draw.
Siswick had anticipated ‘one hell of a game’. But, not only was he trying to find the keys to unlock the Sandal defence, he was left searching for his own set of keys after dropping them in the car-park.
Another weighty crowd arrived at Claro Road to roar on ‘Gate, three weeks after cheering the success against Chester.
Sandal started as brutal as their 119-0 defeat of Kendal last week suggested they would.
Their forwards defended with vicious, bruising blows time and time again. And their effort forced ‘Gate into two early penalty errors 30 yards out, the first for coming in at the side before Jake Brady tackled too high.
The away side’s fly-half and captain Greg Wood stepped up to slot both between the sticks.
Leading ‘Gate try-scorer Sam Bottomley darted through the defence after 10 minutes but with a three against one to his left, he was wrapped up just outside the 22.
The home side’s early intentions were clear as the resulting penalty awarded for offside was kicked into touch, allowing for a catch and drive.
But more hefty tackles from the Sandal defence denied ‘Gate a shot for the line.
A minute later, ‘Gate stole a lineout and as they formed another driving maul, Sandal were penalised for hauling it down. Callum Irvine halved the deficit from the penalty.
The game continued at a fierce pace but both sides saw scoring chances limited.
That was until 10 minutes before the break when Sandal scored the first try of the afternoon.
It was another penalty which cost ‘Gate but this time, Wood chose to kick to the corner. From the resulting catch and drive the stealthy Sandal forwards bundled over to extend the lead to 11-3, with Wood missing the conversion.
Errors started to creep into the ‘Gate play as Sandal pressurised for more points. But their scrum-half Max Whittingham’s kick through was blocked down the left-wing before the referee blew for a forward pass as a runner surged for the line.
‘Gate replacement Sam Brady then charged for the line as the half time neared but he spilled forward in a tackle five yards out.
It was a half of oos and ahhs from the crowd as tackles came in thick and fast from both sides.
The home team made a number of breaks through the line, but support was often lacking.
After the restart, the play continued at a similar rate.
‘Gate started to gain the upper hand in the scrum and Sandal were penalised for offside but Irvine dragged his penalty wide.
It wasn’t long before Siswick’s men did claw themselves back into the contest with their first try. Irvine broke through the centre and after Mike Aspinall spun a superb pass wide, Bottomley dived for the line for the 16th time this season. Irvine again struggled with the headwind and missed the chance to pull his side within a point with the conversion.
Peter Wackett then stormed clear but his inside to Aspinall went forward, when a pass left looked the better option.
Sandal responded with a chance break. Full-back Tom Coad stormed clear through the centre but he was held up yards before the line. As the forward’s piled in, the referee raised his arm for a penalty advantage to the away team. But they didn’t need it, as one forward grabbed the ball and slipped over the line.
‘Gate looked to have hit straight back with their own try as Aarin Yorke dived over, again on the left wing. But Yorke’s celebrations were abruptly interrupted as the referee, in collaboration with the touch judge, pulled ‘Gate up for crossing.
The game turned end to end, as Sandal surged again for the ‘Gate try-line. But their effort was denied in the corner as scrum-half Whittingham tried to pile over the ruck.
Handling errors and penalties continued to haunt ‘Gate when they made the breaks. And Sandal remained vigorous at the breakdown.
Wood then pulled his side a further three points clear with a composed drop goal from 30 yards out.
And with the victory all-but wrapped up, the away side sought to run the clock down as ‘Gate struggled to break the gain line and move out of their half.
When they did, coach Mike Aspinall fumbled from chip and go run before the referee Brendan McGaffney brought the game to an end.
Defeat leaves a disappointed Harrogate needing a victory at Billingham next week to secure a promotion play-off decider.
In football, Harrogate Town’s Blue Square North play-off ambitions took a further dent as they failed to break down mid-table Oxford City.
Danny Forrest missed a glorious late opportunity for Simon Weaver’s side but the score ended 0-0.
Billy Miller’s Harrogate Railway also suffered an agonising day as they slipped to a 2-1 defeat at home to Warrington Town.
Miller’s men trailed 2-0 at half-time but were much the better side in the second period.
Nathan Cartman grabbed a goal in the 85th minute but Railway failed to grab an equaliser.
Knaresborough Town suffered a demoralising 4-1 defeat against fellow NCEL Division One high-fliers Shirebrook Town.
It was a third defeat in a week for Brian Davey’s men after losing 2-0 to promotion favourites Albion Sports on Wednesday and 1-0 to Louth Town last Saturday.