ILKLEY lost a nail-biting North Premier encounter on Saturday, going down to a narrow 16-15 defeat to a much bigger and in-form Wirral side at Stacks Field.

Matt Burke made a welcome return for the injured Peter Erskine and Rory Kassapian made his debut, starting on the bench.

The playing conditions were ideal and Wirral let their intentions be known right from the kick-off.

Blake Morgan’s chip over the visitors’ defensive line was well fielded and returned with interest. Ilkley lost the line and after a couple of well-controlled phases, winger Matt Loon came off his wing and scythed through a melee of players to score.

James Annetts’ kick was a formality and the visitors led 7-0.

Wirral clearly were out to intimidate and were able to provoke some indiscipline from the home side and from a second holding-on offence, Annetts slotted a penalty to make it 10-0.

Ilkley surged back, a high tackle on Morgan initiating another couple of rounds of handbags and a talking-to for both captains.

J-H Johnson’s consecutive penalties set up chances, but a not-straight decision at the line didn’t help Ilkley’s cause.

Struan Connor’s great catch from the clearance kick, followed by a typically aggressive Johnson run deserved better than a nudge forward in the tackle, but that was a quarter of the game gone with the home side yet to score.

There were a couple more feisty exchanges in the ensuing 20 minutes, with both sides making a lot of handling errors, some forced, but many unforced.

An injury to Johnson led to the winger being replaced by Andy Dixon at scrum-half, giving Morgan an opportunity to shine on the wing.

Wirral hammered away at the Ilkley defence and to the Dalesmen’s credit, no further score was conceded before half-time.

On the contrary, after some magnificent defensive smashes, a superb catch by Connor set up an Ilkley attack.

The full-back’s adjustment of the ball slowed him down, but Wirral conceded at the ruck after good play from Billy Nicholls.

From the ensuing line-out, a pin-point throw-in allowed Pat Power score in the corner.

Charles Ramsey’s kick was off-target, but the half finished with Ilkley just 5 points behind at 10-5.

The second half started well enough for Ilkley, continuing where they left off in terms of tackling, but so too did the errors.

After Wirral knocked on in a tackle, the Ilkley scrum was sloppy and it was their turn to knock on.

Referee Mr Lewis whistled for not binding and up stepped Annetts again to kick the goal to make it 13-5.

Ilkley won a line from the kick-off and began to batter their way upfield, but the pressure failed to tell when the ball was knocked on with only a few metres to go and Wirral cleared.

A good break from winger Ricky Palacio was halted illegally and a rare penalty went Ilkley’s way. Wirral’s backs wandered offside and Ramsey punished the transgression to bring the score to 13-8.

There were now a few more decisions going Ilkley’s way, but still handling errors stymied some really smart moves.

One such knock on led to a Wirral put-in and then it was the Ilkley backs’ turn to transgress, and the reliable Annetts restored the eight-point lead.

It was at this stage of the game that Ilkley’s fitness did begin to tell, epitomised by the tireless Joe Lowes and following a Wirral knock on, Ilkley’s patient build-up led to a very well-taken try for the Number 7. Ramsey’s kick was good and there was now just one point in it at 16-15.

Wirral’s kick-off went straight into touch and Ilkley upped their game once more. A high tackle on Luke Pearson and a difficult decision to make - kick for goal or go for touch?

Touch it was and Ilkley were back into the Wirral half, though perhaps not so deeply as they would have wished.

Further pressure from the line, another knock-on and Wirral’s titanic clearance kick put Ilkley right back into their own 22.

The Dalesmen were not down and out yet though and surging upfield, they won a penalty and there was to be one last throw of the dice.

The attack gathered momentum, but when the ball went to ground, Mr Lewis ruled it had gone forward and blew for time, much to the relief of the Wirral contingent.

Another five minutes and Ilkley could have taken this game, which their second-half performance certainly merited and a solitary losing bonus point was scant reward for the effort put in.

Two tries to one in Ilkley's favour, but tellingly, four from four kicks from Wirral's Annetts to give the slimmest of winning margins.

This Saturday is a rare opportunity to see Yorkshire Cup rugby, with Ilkley travelling to Harrogate to contest a quarter-final.