Saturday saw the top two Whitby Maroons and Houghton go head-to-head at the Showfield.
With three games to go, the home side knew a win would secure the title while Houghton knew a win for them would keep their own title hopes alive.
We could have won but lapses of concentration at key times cost us.Maroons coach Darryl Grason
Whitby suffered a blow just before kick-off when talismanic Gordon Bland failed a fitness test on his hamstring.
The 25mph wind was blowing down the field and was bound to have a big effect on the game. Houghton, with the wind behind, started strongly and after just three minutes took the lead with a penalty goal after Whitby had been penalised at the breakdown.
Houghton were proving strong in the scrums and especially at the breakdown area which they dominated while Maroons were doing well in the lineouts with Neil Waterfield in top form.
Maroons were having to absorb a lot of pressure but defended well until in the 23rd minute.
The Houghton fly half jinked through for a fine solo try.
Good defence from Whitby meant the rest of the half went without any further scores, meaning that with the strong wind there was every chance of overturning the 10-point deficit.
The Maroons started the second half with a bang and from a catch and drive, prop Matthew Russell crashed over, with Stuart Gregson adding a superb conversion from the touchline.
Houghton then made a terrible misdirected kick off down the centre of the field but the home side, looking
complacent after just scoring, first failed to gather then knocked on.
After a series of increasingly bizarre decisions, the ball somehow ended up just metres short of Whitby’s line and the visiting winger scooped up the ball to cross near the corner. None of the home team players reacted and he ran round under the posts to make the conversion easy.
Whitby roared back and Sam Webster, who has had a great season, broke two tackles to go in near the posts, with Gregson converting.
The game was in the balance and the Maroons went ahead when a lucky bounce paved the way for the impressive Gregson to sprint in for a try he converted himself.
With 15 minutes left and playing downhill with the strong wind behind them, the home side should have closed the game out but after looking sure to do so a couple of penalties gave Houghton field position, only a fine cover tackle by Ollie Roberts saved the day.
Houghton again pressed and Matt Russell won a great turnover with a grapple tackle to give Whitby an ‘own put in’ to the scrum only 5m from their own line.
Unfortunately for the first time all day, the scrum was lost against the head and the visiting number eight, who had been impressive all afternoon, put the nippy scrum half in for a neat converted try.
With four minutes left there was still time for one last assault by Whitby but Houghton gained possession and ate up the clock efficiently to see out the narrow victory.
Coach Darryl Grason said: “This was a game the Maroons should have closed out, having gained the lead and going downhill, but complacency and a few weaknesses which have been there all season came back to bite them.
“With two league games and a cup semi-final to come, it is important the young players learn from Saturday’s mistakes if they are to see out the season in style.
“We could have won this game but lapses of concentration at key times cost us, the visitors dominated the breakdown by being faster to the collision areas.
“We a have a lot of young players and I hope we have learnt the lessons and can use this setback to motivate us to train harder and bounce back, we still have a league to win and a home cup semi final to come so our season is far from dead.”
Whitby Gazette man of the match: Matt Russell – led from the front and put in a titanic shift.
Whitby gained a losing bonus point on Saturday with Houghton getting four for the win, so the Maroons’ lead at the top is now eight points with two games remaining.
Whitby need three points to win the league title so realistically require one more win.
Whitby Maroons’ remaining fixtures:
11 April Jarrovians (a) league
18 April Newton Aycliffe (h) league
25 April Northallerton (h) Yorkshire Silver Trophy semi final
All kick-offs 3pm.