Not many people could have imagined that Rochdale Hornets would leave the field on Saturday afternoon dejected because they had been beaten by Super League outfit Warrington Wolves, yet that was exactly how the players felt in the Manchester Regional Arena changing rooms after the full-time hooter.
They had come so close to causing a huge pre-season upset by defeating their partner club, but for Harvey Livett’s touchline conversion after the full-time hooter which broke Hornets hearts.
Tony Smith included some big names in his side as Alan Kilshaw used the fixture to give his full squad a run-out, with Josh Crowley and the suspended Jono Smith the only absentees.
Danny Bridge gained some valuable minutes after re-joining the club on a one-month loan from Redcliffe Dolphins, as he put in a solid performance.
The opening exchanges saw Warrington pile pressure on the Rochdale line, and they looked certain to score but for a perfectly timed tackle from Rob Massam on Matty Blythe which stopped him in his tracks.
Soon after they did make their way over the line through George King, only for him to knock on over the line much to his embarrassment.
Lewis Galbraith must have took inspiration from Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium next door when he dribbled the ball the length of the field, only for the retreating Jack Johnson to deny him what would have been an incredible try.
Rochdale did open their account on 23 minutes though, when after he had forced a goal-line drop-out Danny Yates found Miles Greenwood with a double-pump, and the fullback could not be stopped from close range with Lewis Palfrey tagging on the extras.
The introduction of Daryl Clark saw the visitors get a strangle hold of the game, and the former Steve Prescott Man of Steel winner got his side back in it when he muscled his way over from dummy half off the back of repeat sets.
With the conversion attempt missed the Wolves hit the lead three minutes later as Livett’s high kick was patted back by Ryan Jones for Blythe to score a four-pointer.
Andre Savelio was a stand-out for the away side, yet it was his shoulder charge moments before the break which gave Rochdale the field position to pounce, as Ben Moores fired a blind-side pass to Jake Eccleston who touched down for a 12-8 lead at half-time.
Both sides made a number of changes in the second period and the torrential downpour diluted the quality of the contest, however it was still a dramatic 40 minutes.
Toby King made up for his brother’s first-half error when he raced over straight from a scrum on 50 minutes, before Brad Dwyer scored directly from a tap to expose some soft defence from Rochdale to give his side an 18-12 advantage.
Massam replied for the hosts with a debut try, as he plucked Yates’ cross-field kick out of the air to edge his side within two points.
Errors crept in during the next quarter of the game as the players struggled to deal with the deteriorating conditions, until a penalty off the back of a great attacking set gave Rochdale a chance to hit the front.
They did just that, as Jay Lobwein’s grubber sat up perfectly for trialist Jordan Cella who thought he had grabbed the winner six minutes from time, with Palfrey making it 22-18 with the conversion.
A frantic last minute saw the game come to an incredible end, as Jones managed to find space out wide to dive over off the back of an offside penalty.
The hooter sounded and youngster Livett was left with the unenviable task of converting from the touchline, but he didn’t allow nerves to get the better of him as he sent the ball sailing over the black dot to snatch a 24-22 victory.
Although there were no points on offer a triumph over Super League opposition would have been a brilliant reward for a gritty and brave Hornets performance.
Instead the players were left with an enormous sense of pride, knowing that they had mixed it with one of the top sides in country, which rounded off an impressive pre-season as they head into round one of the Kingstone Press Championship season with an abundance of confidence.
Miles Greenwood, Rob Massam, Jake Eccleston, Lewis Galbraith, Jack Holmes, Lewis Palfrey, Danny Yates, Gavin Bennion, Ben Moores, Samir Tahraoui, Jordan Case, Danny Bridge, Gary Middlehurst Subs (all used): Ryan Maneely, Jay Lobwein , Matty Hadden, Jo Taira, Jack Francis, Paddy Jones, Luke Fowden, Jordan Cella
Tries: Greenwood (23), Eccleston (40), Massam (58), Cella (74)
Goals: Palfrey 3/4
Jack Johnson, Ryan Jones, Matty Blythe, Toby King, Rhys Evans, Harvey Livett, Declan Patton, George King, Brad Dwyer, Joe Philbin, Andre Savelio, Sam Wilde, Joe Westerman Subs (all used): Daryl Clark, Pat Moran, Lewis Hatton, Declan Kay, Lee Mitchell, Danny Rasool, Joe Ryan, Brad Stanway, Tyler Whittaker
Tries: Clark (30), Blythe (33), T. King (50) Dwyer (53), Jones (80)
Goals: Patton 0/2 Livett 2/3