BLYTH were determined to put the previous week’s disappointing performance against Gosforth behind them and gave in-form Horden a stern test on Saturday.
But they fell agonisingly short of not just a win but even a bonus point, which was the least they deserved in a heroic performance against severe pressure throughout by a classy Horden outfit.
Horden have recruited well over the last couple of months and are without doubt the best team in the league on current form.
Nine wins on the bounce shows they will be promotion favourites next season as a slow start this season ensuring promotion will not happen during the current campaign.
Blyth were rocked by late cry-offs which severely hampered preparations and team selection.
Firstly prop Dave Baron on Friday evening, centre James Bostock on the morning of the game and then influential skipper Tony Smithson withdrew from the squad only an hour before kick-off.
After several phone calls Blyth eventually managed to sort out a decent bench, and credit to openside flanker Dean Langdown who filled in at scrum-half and put in a solid performance.
The disruptions also meant a late recall for Steven Long after 12 weeks out due to shoulder surgery, and he also putting in a creditable performance.
On a day where the severe wind would play a key role, head groundsman Nick Stafford had done an excellent job in preparing a great surface.
Blyth coach Darren Cunningham was unavailable so Kev Westgarth, who has helped out with coaching a few times this season, agreed to take control of the team for the day, and it nearly paid dividends with Blyth almost pulling off an unexpected victory.
Blyth started the brightest with a near gale force wind behind their backs, and it was clear this game was not going to be one for the faint hearted with some of the collisions making the Plessey Road ground shudder.
Despite Blyth’s bright start it was Horden who registered the first points with a simple penalty by fly-half Turner.
Blyth fly-half Andy Sutherland used the strong wind to his advantage, constantly kicking the ball deep into the Horden 22, and it was no real surprise when the scores were level after Horden infringed in a ruck, Sutherland slotting over the penalty to make the score 3-3 after 12 minutes.
Horden’s bigger pack dominated the Blyth scrum and their mauling game was effective, and marshalled well by former Blyth player Andy Raine, playing at scrum-half.
Turner kicked another penalty for Horden on 20 minutes with Sutherland responding on 36 minutes after previously missing a difficult attempt.
The half-time score of 6–6 just about reflected the game, although many of the large crowd thought Blyth did not quite have enough points on the board given the massive breeze behind them.
The Horden pack continued to have the upper hand on Blyth’s pack, particularly in the scrums, although credit must be given to Blyth for not conceding any scrums against the head.
Blyth took a surprise lead on 57 minutes when a loose ball from a Horden scrum on the Blyth five-metre line was scooped up by scrum-half Dean Langdown who fed Sutherland to break, and after some neat passing by the supporting back row the ball was eventually shipped to speedy winger Andy Barker who raced in from the half way line.
The difficult conversion was missed leaving the score at 11–6.
The turning point in the game came shortly after with prop Nick Fraser sin binned for fighting, and then, crucially Langdown followed after a harsh decision, leaving Blyth with only 13 men on the park.
This left Blyth with a momentous defending task to snuff out wave after wave of Horden attack, and after a Turner penalty to reduce the deficit to 11–9, Turner then scored a fortuitous try after the ball squirted out the side of a Blyth scrum deep in their 22. He added the extras to take the score to 16-11 in the visitors’ favour.
The game had been turned on its head in minutes.
To be fair to Horden, they did dominate for long periods and the try was probably just rewards for their domination, however, it was harsh on Blyth who had defended superbly and thwarted everything Horden threw at them.
Blyth did have the odd foray into the Horden half without really threatening the line, and to rub salt into their wounds, Turner kicked another two late penalties, one with the final kick of the game, to take the score to 22-11.
This was a bitter pill to swallow for Blyth after a massive effort against excellent opposition, and not even a bonus point to take from it.
The signs are good, however, after last week’s poor performance Blyth have showed they are not going to lie down against anyone.
Blyth player-manager Kev Barratt said: “We deserved something out of this game but got nothing, which is hard to take.
“The lads have put in a massive game and they should hold their heads up high.
“We’ve a difficult game away to Guisborough in a fortnight and then games against Gateshead and Sunderland to close the season out.
“I can see us picking up points so it’s not all doom and gloom.
“We’re certainly going to fight till the bitter end to stay in this league and I’m confident we can do just that.
“If we had a point for every time an opposition coach or player tells us we’re a great team and they can’t understand why we’re in such a lowly position, we’d be fighting for promotion.
“The accolades from other coaches are nice but mean nothing because we are where we are and that’s in a relegation dogfight.
“We knew this season would be tough but collectively we can stay in this league if we show the heart, grit and determination we’ve shown today.”
Man of the match: Andy Sutherland.
Blyth are at Guisborough on April 6, kick-off 3pm.