Having comfortably despatched one of the league’s top sides immediately before the Christmas break, Ilkley were red-hot favourites by some distance to avenge their defeat in Wakefield earlier in the season. Alas, this proved not to be the case, the Dalesmen suffering yet another narrow defeat in a game they undoubtably could have won.
A lethal mix of indiscipline, sloppiness and poor decision-making undid whatever plans the coaching staff had for the side and bottom club Sandal surprised even themselves with the win, no matter that their game plan didn’t go much further than smothering anything that Ilkley could offer in attack.
All the usual Ilkley attributes were on display - fierce tackling led by Skipper Joe Lowes and some superb line-breaking running from Kristan Dobson and Ben Magee. Unfortunately, the less palatable Dalesmen foibles also emerged - indiscipline at the breakdown and a malfunctioning line-out, especially in the second half.
The first quarter of the game produced no score and it was clear that Ilkley were not going to enjoy the stroll in the park some may have expected. Four penalties in as many minutes were coughed up, as Sandal’s pack flexed their muscles, but the home defence stood firm.
Having weathered the opening storm, Ilkley won a scrum penalty. From the line, Archie Ellwood chipped over the defence and Dobson was on hand to take the ball on the full. A try looked inevitable, but the Sandal defence had other ideas and the centre was bundled into touch 5m out.
Ilkley’s next attack broken down with a knock on after 15 minutes and Floris van Oekel’s cameo role came to an end, as he limped off to be replaced by James Colclough.
It was nip and tuck now. Another knock on in the Ilkley backs following a Magee break halted proceedings and then Sandal’s pack took over, rumbling up the field towards the Ilkley line. Some textbook rugby led to the day’s first try, as Ilkley ran out of defenders, centre Josh Adams claiming the score. His conversion attempt failed though.
The big Sandal pack was dominant at this stage of the game, but the Ilkley defence held firm again, until a clearance kick on their 22 was charged down. The Sandal attack reacted fastest and centre Louis Adams claimed the try. Brother Josh kicked the goal and Ilkley were ten-nil down after just 15 minutes.
To be fair, Ilkley reacted well to these reverses and they looked good for the remainder of the half. A penalty 30m out gave them the changed to reduce the deficit, but Charles Morgan’s kick drifted wide. Back came the Dalesmen to win another penalty and this time, Morgan made no mistake.
In the last move of the half, Magee’s chip and chase almost earned the full-back a well-deserved try but referee Mr. Wakeham whistled for a knock on and the chance was gone.
Ilkley started the second half well, earning two penalties in the first five minutes. The first earned Sandal a yellow card, but Ilkley’s line was lost and it took another offence by the visitors to enable Morgan to kick his second of the day to make it 6-10.
Sandal almost immediately nullified that score with another penalty of their own and it was 6-13 with half an hour in the gloom to go.
Ilkley did their level best to take advantage of the numerical superiority, but even when Sandal received a second yellow, two lost lines meant there was no change to the score. Eventually, the deadlock was broken when Colclough finished off a move following a storming run down the right wing by hooker, Charlie Head. The conversion was missed.
With the scoreboard indicating that the game was nicely poised entering the last quarter, play nevertheless became scrappy, both sides serving up some pretty poor post-Christmas fare.
The gathering darkness was illuminated by another Dobson break and this time he found Colclough once more in support to touch down and tie the scores. Again though, the conversion was missed.
With Sandal back to full strength, the feeling in the well-lunched crowd was that Ilkley would now open up a tiring Sandal defence and run in a couple more tries to seal the deal.
Tiring they may have been, but when Ilkley conceded a daft penalty on their 22, Adams restored his side’s lead to make it 16-19.
With plenty of time left to make amends, Ilkley just couldn’t make it happen, try as they might. Poor handling and lost lines didn’t help their cause, nor did a yellow card for Alex Powell. In the end, Mr Wakeham’s whistle came as something of a relief and the frustrated Dalesmen had to be content with a losing bonus-point.
This setback means that next week’s fixture away at Scunthorpe assumes a greater importance than should have been the case. Ilkley won their home fixture reasonably comfortably back in October, but they will have to pick themselves up by their boot-straps after this performance and get back into Harrogate mode.
No easy task, then, but if the will is there, there is no reason why Ilkley cannot return from Lincolnshire with the spoils.
7th January 2024.