Toronto Wolfpack have survived a scare from part-time outfit Rochdale Hornets but ultimately prevailed by one point at Crown Oil Arena. Down by one point with five minutes left until full-time, Toronto were awarded a controversial off-side penalty 30 metres out and directly in front of the posts. Scottish international Ryan Brierley kicked the penalty goal to move Toronto ahead. Rochdale themselves had a chance to equalize with a late field goal and even steal a win with a penalty shot from close to halfway but could not convert these opportunities.
Toronto coach Paul Rowley made the surprise move of dropping incumbent fullback Quentin Laulu-Togaga’e from the lineup to make way for new signing Gareth O’Brien. However, winger Adam Higson pulled out during warm ups with an injury which prompted Rowley to bring Laulu-Togaga’e back onto the wing. O’Brien had a solid debut performance, looking dangerous with the ball and instantly gelled with his new teammates.
The home team started strong, regathering possession from a surprise short kick on the opening kickoff. Rochdale looked sharp with the ball in hand and scored on the ensuing possession through centre Earl Hurst who capitalised on a bomb dropped by Toronto winger Liam Kay. Toronto’s injury woes continued as centre Gary Wheeler made his first appearance for the season but went off with an injury on the first defensive set and did not return.
The visitors hit back through makeshift centre Richard Whiting, who pulled off a spectacular catch of a Brierley bomb before offloading to Liam Kay who dived over to equalise. Toronto’s usual Achilles’ heel resurfaced, with handling errors and ill-discipline costing them possession, field position and a chance to assert their dominance over the less favoured side.
The Hornets reclaimed the lead through lock Gary Middlehurst who hit a short ball from halfback Morgan Smith to crash over on the goal line. Rochdale defended their goal line with intensity as they repelled several Toronto sets inside their defensive 20 metres. The home team’s desperation was exemplified by scrambling to chase down a rampaging Jack Bussey who made a lengthy line break and holding out Toronto on the following play.
Rochdale looked to match their first half intensity with a strong start to the second half. They were rewarded when Welsh international Rob Massam caught a bomb from Morgan Smith and scored in spite of receiving a high shot on his way to scoring. Staring down a 10 point second half the Wolfpack knew they had to score quickly to get back into the match and did so through skipper Josh McCrone as he dummied and used his pace to get past Rochdale’s now tiring goal line defense.
With the momentum in Toronto’s favour, a scuffle between O’Brien and Hornets playmaker Lewis Palfrey escalated to a confrontation between both teams and resulted in the sinbinning of O’Brien, Palfrey and Liam Kay, giving Rochdale a one man advantage. With two of their strike weapons off the field, Toronto opted for a direct style of attack, as former Canterbury Bulldog Reni Maitua scored on the left edge from a shot ball from McCrone. Brierley missed the conversion and the scores were level as a result.
The field goal shootout began early with Brierley firing the first shot from long-range with almost 15 minutes to go. Smith, on loan from Warrington Wolves, looked to be the hero for Rochdale as he hit a field goal from close range with almost no pressure from Toronto’s defense to take the lead by one. The penalty goal kicked by Brierley in response was ultimately decisive.
Toronto solidified their position in the top 4 of the Betfred Championship. They now hold a five competition point lead over fifth placed Dewbury Rams. Rochdale are in danger of relegation with only one win from five matches to begin the season. Toronto look ahead to a tough weekend of rugby league, meeting third placed Featherstone Rovers on Friday March 30 before travelling to France to take on second placed Toulouse Olympique on Monday April 2.
Toronto Wolfpack 18
Tries: Kay (11), McCrone (54), Maitua (63)
Goals: Brierley ¾
Rochdale Hornets 17
Tries: Hurst (2), Middlehurst (20), Massam (51)
Goals: Palfrey 2/3
Field Goal: Smith (71)