Knights suffer narrow defeat to Widnes in Championship season opener
YORK KNIGHTS head coach Andrew Henderson’s first home match in charge ended in a 12-19 defeat against Widnes Vikings on the opening weekend of the 2023 Betfred Championship season.
Widnes had the upper hand from the start, running in the afternoon’s opening try inside 10 minutes, but it was the Knights who went into the interval with a two-point lead after Danny Kirmond’s try was converted by James Glover on the half-hour mark.
However, a quick-fire Gilmore penalty and Shane Grady score saw the visitors turn things around in a lightning start after the interval.
Joe Brown next crossed the line for the Knights as they restored their advantage on 56 minutes but from thereon out it was one way traffic, with the hosts made to pay for individual errors as a debut Ant Walker try, and then a penalty from Jake Owens all but sealed the win for the visitors.
The impressive Tom Gilmore put gloss on the scoreline late on, opting for a drop goal with a minute and a half left on the clock to consign Henderson to a first defeat since taking over the top job from James Ford in October.
In another blow to Henderson, debutant James Cunningham, who had been handed his first start for the club after joining from Toulouse Olympique in midweek, was forced off with what looked like a hamstring injury in the aftermath of the opening try.
He is the latest name to be added to the long injury list at the Knights, with the likes of Ata Hingano, Pauli Pauli, Chris Clarkson and Brad Ward all still sidelined, though Henderson is hopeful to have two or three more bodies available for the visit of Bradford Bulls to the LNER next Monday (7.45pm).
Jon Luke Kirby and Conor Fitzsimmons were handed their competitive debuts after joining from Betfred Super League outfit Huddersfield Giants and Betfred League One side Workington Town respectively, having kept their places in the side after impressing in the Knights’ pre-season run outs against League One promotion hopefuls Doncaster RLFC and Championship rivals Batley Bulldogs.
The visitors started on the front foot and thought that they had run in the afternoon’s opening try on five minutes when Gilmore’s kick-chase saw the ball worked well to Kieran Dixon down the left wing, but an outstanding defensive tackle pushed the winger into touch.
A minute later, Dixon came close again after being left in too much space down the left, but a combination of Matty Marsh, Glover and Joe Brown crowded him out.
They proved to be warnings that the Knights didn’t heed though, and they were behind inside 10 minutes.
Widnes came out on the right side of a 50/50 following a high Gilmore kick, with Ryan Millar strolling over the opening score into the right corner. Gilmore’s kick proved too short to add the extras.
Individual errors began to creep their way into the Knights’ game, with Widnes awarded a scrum close to the hosts’ line, before the visitors countered quicky when a loose York pass was intercepted.
Myles Harrison was a breath of fresh air for the Knights as they looked to gain ground centrally, evading three tackles to relieve some pressure and drive the hosts to halfway.
Liam Harris was tackled inches short of the line as the Knights began to find some joy going forwards, and on the half-hour mark they were level.
Harris sent a perfectly-weighted kick in behind the Vikings defence for Kirmond, who bundled over from close range, with James Glover then firing the Knights in front from the tee.
Cunningham, who started at stand off in place of the injured Hingano, then limped from the field in a cruel twist of fate for Henderson, who was already down to the bare bones of his squad before kick- off.
His injury forced Henderson to change formation, with hooker Will Jubb moving further infield, and they seemed certain to have extended their advantage when Harris broke through the Widnes defensive line, but were penalised for a forward pass on the last tackle.
Instead it was Widnes who had the last word of the half after Millar exploited a gap to race forward 40 metres, but Bailey Antrobus did just enough to force a turnover of possession and preserve his side’ narrow 6-4 advantage.
Individual errors were the story of the second half for the Knights, who found themselves with a four-point deficit just six minutes after the interval with Gilmore’s first successful kick of the afternoon.
Marsh, who has been a key figure for the Knights under Henderson thus far, fumbled a simple kick to give Widnes a scrum 20 metres out, before a big hit gifted the Vikings a penalty in front of the sticks, with Gilmore easily drawing his side level.
And just three minutes later the Knights were behind, Shane Grady somehow scrambling the ball over the line in the right corner, after the visitors had been awarded a scrum 20 metres out.
But York soon responded with a moment of real quality, showing a glimpse of the free-flowing rugby fans have seen throughout pre-season.
Opting to kick on the last, Harris sent a grubber towards Joe Brown, the 24-year-old winger crossing for his 18th try in Knights colours. Glover somehow managed to add the extras from the tight angle down the right on an impressive afternoon with the boot.
That try cranked the atmosphere up a notch, as did an outstanding tackle from Antrobus on the rampant Millar, who had again found himself free on the right wing.
With the score finely poised, Kirby, who had been re-introduced from the bench, looked to extend the Knight’s two-point advantage after offloading to Fitzsimmons on the turn, but Widnes were able to overturn the possession.
And as soon as they had nearly found themselves further in front, the Knights were soon behind.
An error halfway down the pitch gifted Widnes possession, with substitute Walker making no mistake to touch down his first Vikings try under the sticks with 12 minutes remaining, Jake Owens easily converting the score.
The Vikings’ lead was six just four minutes later, Owens again finding joy with the boot after opting to kick from a penalty won 35 metres out.
The Knights were just a converted try behind however, with both Fitzsimmons and Kirmond coming close to running in tries, the latter being held up by a superb tackle on the last.
Gilmore’s drop goal in the dying seconds made sure of the win for the visitors in what proved to be the last action of the game.
Henderson’s side will be hoping to bounce back from today’s defeat against Bradford Bulls, who won their season opener at home to Whitehaven 24-8, on Monday night (7.45pm),
YORK KNIGHTS: Marsh, Brown, Glover, Harrison, Towse, Cunningham, Harris, Kirby, Jubb, Fitzsimmons, Kirmond, Antrobus, Thompson.
INTERCHANGES: Michael, Daley, Teanby, Barnard, Price.
TRIES: Kirmond (30), Brown (56)
GOALS: Glover 2/2
WIDNES VIKINGS: Owens, Millar, Fleming, Edge, Dixon, Lyons, Gilmore, Lawton, Johnstone, Amor, Davies, Grady, Bent.
INTERCHANGES: Fozard, Field, Hatton, Walker, Ince.
TRIES: Millar (9), Grady (46), Walker (67)
GOALS: Gilmore 2/4, Owens 2/2
POINTS SEQUENCE: 0-4, 4-4, 4-6, 6-6, 6-10, 10-10, 12-10, 12-14, 12-16, 12-18, 12-19
YORK’S STAR MAN: Bailey Antrobus. The second row was fantastic defensively, especially to deny a charging Millar in the second half.
REFEREE: Michael Smaill