A touchline conversion at the death from Benn Hardcastle saw Newcastle Thunder maintain their perfect start to the 2017 season, with a 24-22 win over London Skolars.
The home side looked to be heading for a first loss in competitive action since June 2016 in a scrappy encounter saw them struggle to deal with the abrasiveness of a side looking to make a statement following a humbling 0-76 loss to Toronto Wolfpack a week prior.
That was before a penalty and red card against the Skolars gave Mick Mantelli’s side a gilt edged position to launch a final attack and overturn the 18-22 deficit.
It was a chance that Thunder seized with some precise passing and quick runs drawing space for winger Ali Blair to dive in for his second try of the day and give his team-mate the opportunity to create some headline grabbing glory.
But for the final exchanges, and some sporadic moments, it was a game that struggled to spark with both sides playing at a lethargic pace for large periods with the Skolars taking full advantage to control the pace of the game.
The visitors were ahead after an early mistake from Thunder allowed the Skolars an opportunity to get around the defensive line with the final pass finding Sam Nash out on the wing and with a clear run to the line.
Converted by Phil Lyon, it was an unwelcome start for Newcastle and one they were unable to respond to, as repeatedly decent completed sets failed to release a strike runner.
The gap was up twelve points with 20 minutes gone, following a fumble from Ali Blair that gave Skolars a repeat set and possession 10m from Thunder’s line and from where Aaron Small crossed to punish the error.
The introduction of Cook Island international Vincent Rennie made an immediate difference for the hosts, with his powerful runs finally allowing Thunder to enjoy some time on the front foot although it did take until the half hour mark for the hosts to register their first score.
After Brett Waller barrelled his way over from close range for a converted try, the Skolars restored two points to their lead with a penalty goal, but Thunder ended the half in the ascendency with two further tries from Danny Nicklas and Derrell Olpherts squaring the scores at 14-14.
Having profited handsomely from playing at pace, Thunder made the worst possible start to the second period with two unforced errors giving the visitors and going back into the ponderous style that had yielded so little.
With opportunities thin on the ground for both teams, Skolars opted for another kick at goal to take a two point lead, before Thunder flipped that around thanks to a try from Blair that again made use of pace and precision.
When the hosts failed to deal with a spilled ball and allowed London to hack up before scoring through Lamont Bryan, it seemed that Thunder’s blunt attacking edge would see them come up short.
But this current Thunder iteration has learned from the bitter experiences of 12 months ago when they fell to narrow defeats in the opening rounds of the league and when presented with one final chance, had enough about them to summon what was needed and take an important win.
Newcastle Thunder Squad
Lewis Young, Ali Blair, Tyler Craig, Derrell Olpherts, Peter Fox, Benn Hardcastle, Danny Nicklas, Matty Barron, Evan Simons, Corbyn Kilday, Rhys Clarke, Harry Aldous, Liam McAvoy, Aaron Teroi, Vincent Rennie, Brett Waller, Sam Luckley
Thunder Tries - Waller (28) Nicklas (36) Olpherts (39) Blair (52, 80)
Thunder Goals - Hardcastle (29, 80)
Yellow Card - Hardcastle
London Skolars Squad
Jake Melling, Sam Nash, Aaron Small, Kam Pearce-Paul, Michael Brown, Jermaine Coleman, Phil Lyon, Simona Vavega, Matt Davis, Callum Bustin, Matt Gee, Eddie Mbaraga, Ryan Chester, Billy Driver, Louis Robinson, Erjon Dollapi, Lamont Bryan
Skolars Tries - Nash (2) Small (19) Bryan 68
Skolars Goals - Lyon (2,19, 34, 44, 68)
Yellow Card - Small
Red Cards - Vavega, Small
Half Time 14 - 14