Rugby league: Saints not all there

Dave Hadfield claims that a marriage of inconvenience led to an ill-matched final
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The Independent Online
IT WAS not a marriage made in heaven for the South Norfolk Saints when their forward, Micky Byrne, decided on 8 August as the day for his nuptials.

His other engagement also cost the East Anglian side most of its back division as they too had to get to the church in Thetford on time.

All appeals for a postponement having been turned down, the Saints battled bravely yesterday in the grand final of the Rugby League Conference, but their depleted resources were ultimately no match for the Crawley Jets, who ran out 40-12 winners at the Prince of Wales stadium in Cheltenham.

Considering that some of South Norfolk's new signings were so raw that they were having to be taught the rules and techniques of an unfamiliar game before the kick-off, they performed amazingly well.

They even lacked the guidance of their coach, John Evans, who was at home waiting for his wife to give birth, and they also lost their scrum- half, Brendan Downes, through injury during the first half.

So it looked ominous when Crawley took the lead in the second minute, their centre Richard Billings taking a pass from the full-back, John Mercott, after the Jets had pressed from the start. Their highly capable scrum- half, Steve O'Reilly, who once played for the reserves at Widnes, added the conversion and a penalty.

But Norfolk had not crossed the heart of England merely to assume the role of bridesmaids. Led by inspiring performances from their props, Tim Groom and Ken Dodds, they kept in the game for longer than they had any right to do and made an intriguing contest of it for an hour.

They cut the lead when one of their newcomers, Phil Friel, sent James Shanahan over and, although O'Reilly's second penalty put them further ahead, Crawley had to play for 10 minutes without their hooker, Simon Kelly, sent to the sin-bin for deliberate off-side.

O'Reilly, a classy and incisive half-back, took Crawley further clear with a solo try just before half-time, but the Saints hung on doggedly.

Although the New Zealander Rod Hammond twice threatened to finish them off with long-range breaks, it was Norfolk who got over the try line through Trevor Bowles after Groom and Dodds had again made the running.

Their courageous struggle was in effect ended by two tries in three minutes from the Crawley stand-off, Mark Henderson, the second of them a length of the field effort from an interception under his own posts.

Hammond got the tries he had been promising, two of them in the last six minutes, before Groom's try for Norfolk completed a score line that did little justice to a side with everything stacked against it.

It was also unfortunate that a fixture clash like yesterday's should have unbalanced the showpiece of a season that had proved so successful for the southern-based competition.

It should not obscure the work that has gone into giving the game more of a national profile than it has enjoyed in over 100 years. The Conference must just hope for better-timed births and marriages in future seasons.

Crawley: Mircott; Elliott, Billings, Hammond, Holmes; Henderson, O'Reilly; Dinsdale, Kelly, Sparks, Matterface, Tresser, Dowling.

South Norfolk: Shanahan; Tanner, Maxey, Horne, Bowles; Friel, Downes; Groom, Johnson, Dodds, Minnett, Vooght, Malone.

Referee: R Hayes (Doncaster).