Yorkshire Carnegie’s claims to the title of the county’s No 1 team eroded a little further here last night.
A first regular-season win at Headingley since 2007 was Rotherham Titans’ reward for a performance built on stout defence, big heart, accurate kicking and a wonderful try-saving tackle from ex-Leeds winger Curtis Wilson.
It was an attritional win, and certainly not one for the neutral to enjoy, such was the paucity of anything resembling running rugby.
While purists may have enjoyed the organised defence of both teams, the statistic that grabs the attention this morning is a an embarrassing shutout on home soil for Carnegie.
This was a fourth defeat from their opening six games of the Greene King IPA Championship, which leaves them a long way from the top four of the division where they have habitually plied their trade.
It is also the second home defeat to a county rival already this term – Doncaster having won here convincingly in September – and one that flies in the face of their name change.
Carnegie’s recent history as the county’s leading team is not in dispute. Eight seasons in the Premiership since the turn of the millennium and promotion campaigns in each of the last two seasons that ended at the semi-final stage by the slenderest of margins, underline that.
They have the infrastructure, a stadium and an academy that ticks all the boxes.
It is on the strength of those that they changed their name from Leeds in the summer to try to tap into a wider White Rose base of support, both in terms of finances and backsides on seats.
It is a bold quest, one that privately ruffled the feathers of their county rivals from the same division, Rotherham and Doncaster.
That both have now come north then returned with a victory will further fuel the South Yorkshire clubs’ ire though, in truth, they are more likely to revel in a little schadenfreude at the plight of their ‘big city’ rivals.
For what the Yorkshire Carnegie venture relies on most is a strong product on the pitch, and any investors in the hospitality boxes last night must have been sealing shut their cheque books.
Carnegie were woeful as an attacking threat, save for a five-minute spell before half-time when they finally attacked with purpose and originality.
Otherwise, they looked a side torn between the orders from head coach Gary Mercer to be defensive-minded and their own natural instincts to attack.
It led to muddled-thinking and a disjointed performance against a Titans team that were not without fault themselves, but more certain of their purpose.
The greasy surface made for difficult handling, granted, but neither team managed to generate any momentum.
The scoreboard operator was not troubled until the 17th minute on a night when he could have headed home after an hour.
Rotherham broke the deadlock with a 50-metre penalty from inside centre Jordan Davies that sneaked over the upright.
Sparked into life, Rotherham continued on the front foot with McKinney punching a hole in Carnegie’s first line, but the hosts’ rearguard proved more than a match as Jonah Holmes stopped Wilson with a shuddering tackle.
On their first venture into the visitors’ 22, Carnegie’s Pete Lucock spilled the ball after a thumping hit from the Titans’ Davies.
Every time Rotherham had the impetus they conspired to turn the ball over before the threat of an attack could become anything of menace.
Carnegie’s defence – the area head coach Mercer identified as his first point of business when taking charge – was standing up to the energetic visitors.
Nathan Hannay, Jared Williams and captain Ryan Burrows took the fight to Rotherham, and it was their drive that took the hosts into scoring range shortly before the break.
For all their pounding at the door, with Jonah Holmes and Burrows prevalent, the Titans held firm before forcing an infringement for obstruction.
But back came Carnegie, Williams bursting through from midfield before Jon Clarke looked set to finish the job, only for Wilson to make a last-ditch saving tackle that ultimately would prove the decisive act.
Rotherham had to stop the ensuing assault illegally, but it was a ploy that worked, as despite losing Davies to the sin-bin for killing the ball, Harry Leonard missed the penalty for the hosts.
Even with 14 men to start the second half, Rotherham retained the impetus, pounding at the wall of white shirts.
On a night of low-scoring, McKinney’s decision to kick a second penalty from in front of the posts after a Carnegie infringement to put Rotherham 6-0 ahead appeared wise.
McKinney could have killed the game off for Rotherham with a penalty in the first minute of stoppage time, but he pulled it wide.
Yorkshire Carnegie: Georgiou, Holmes, Lucock, Clarke, McIlwaine, Leonard (Vickerman 50), Pilgrim (Dudman 60); Harris (Imiloek 51), Graham (J Walker 51), Tideswell (Hooper 73), Smith, Hannay (Edwards 60), Williams, C Walker, Burrows. Unused replacements: Edwards, Barnard.
Rotherham Titans: Scanlon, Keating, Gill, J Davies, Wilson, McKinney, Mitchell; Williams (Thiede 49), Cruse, Tampin (Hislop 49), Holmes, Robinson, Argyle (Ryan 64), Birch, Rieder. Unused replacements: Preece, Parker, A Davies, Hayes.
Referee: I Tempest (RFU).