Ilkley 7

Billingham 41

IT was top versus bottom and an archetypal game of two halves for Ilkley at Stacks Field for the visit of Billingham on Saturday.

It was difficult to see quite why Billingham were unbeaten at the top of the league after 40 minutes and indeed, why Ilkley were bottom.

The visitors changed all that with a blistering second half performance that proved their lofty position was no fluke, condemning their hosts to another week at the foot of the table.

There was no score for the first 15 minutes, but it became clear the cross-kick to the wing was part of Billingham’s firepower, though the two attempts in this period went straight into touch. Both sides were playing fast open rugby and both defences were up to the job.

Highlights for Ilkley were a lovely run by centre Harry Harrison and a valuable steal by prop Ollie Holtham, but the first score went to Billingham, following a line-out on the half-way line. A clean catch and textbook passing down the back line allowed Joe Ross in, the conversion missing.

From the kick-off, Billingham countered with a third cross-kick in their own 22 and this time, it worked to perfection. The ball was fielded on the left wing and some lovely interplay between centre and wing stretched the Ilkley defence and it was centre Luke Wilson who touched down 75 metres later. Peter Evans’ conversion attempt failed again, but Billingham were 10-0 up.

Referee Andy Morton brandished the first of four yellows to Ilkley newcomer Harry Swarbrick for a careless, though not malicious high-tackle, followed swiftly by another two to Billingham for, respectively, a high and late tackle. The last was to Chuckie Ramsay, again for a high tackle, much to the Ilkley vice-captain's surprise and dismay.

In the midst of this carding mayhem, Ilkley scored their solitary try of the day. After good work by Sam Rowntree, Dan Nota’s and Ramsay’s quick hands fed centre Harrison, who had taken a great line to score under the posts. Callum Smithson added the extras and the half finished at 10-7 to the visitors.

Alas for the Dalesmen, whatever the visitors had in their half-time tea worked wonders as they slowly suffocated the Ilkley attack. Evans kicked a penalty and masterminded a near flawless second half performance.

Winger Matty Kirby scored the first of his brace, finishing a smart move in the backs and then yet another cross-field kick by Evans following a line earned from a penalty, was fielded on the same wing for his second and his team’s bonus point. Evans converted both to make it 27-7.

Despite the efforts of Ilkley’s pack, possession was sparse and as the clock ticked down, the visitors upped their game scoring two more beautifully crafted tries, their backs attacking from deep.

Wilson shrugged off too many tackles for his side’s fifth and the scoring was completed when full-back Elliot Husband finished off another slick move. Evans’ faultless second-half kicking made the final score 41-7 to Billingham.

Not for the first time this season, no-one in the crowd could fault Ilkley’s efforts in trying to salvage something from this game and there must be a chance of improving on this game’s nil-return next weekend at Rossendale, who are also not enjoying the best of seasons.

Ilkley’s youthful side are by no means playing low-quality rugby: on the contrary, the skill levels are improving every week, but this a tough, tough league and having effectively been forced to rebuild a team, the coaching staff and players have their work cut out.

Billingham were generous in their appreciation of the shift put in by their hosts and surely, those efforts will be rewarded sooner rather than later.