WITH their 11th win in 12 outings, Oldham achieved the goal they set themselves last November — promotion back to the Betfred Championship.
It was tense, tight, enthralling and at times downright scary, but Roughyeds got there in the end with an 18-14 win against big-spending Newcastle Thunder in the play-off decider at the Vestacare Stadium.
Thunder led three times at 4-0, 8-6 and 14-12, but a 63rd minute try by 19-year-old on-loan prop Jimmy Beckett, the youngest player on the field, was to see Oldham over the line and spark celebrations that will live for ever in the annals of rugby league in Oldham.
It was the third and final time that Roughyeds battled back from behind to get their noses in front; such was their desire and determination to get the job done; to send off departing head coach Scott Naylor on a high; and to fulfil a dressing room dream.
When a shrill blast of the hooter allowed fans to breathe easily for the first time, every single player ran over to the stand, climbed the wall and hugged chairman Chris Hamilton, who was on crutches and in severe pain after a knee replacement.
It was one of several defining moments . . . like Declan Kay’s try-saving interception that prevented Alex Clegg scoring . . . like Dave Hewitt’s rescue act when he somehow put the rampaging Rhys Clarke into touch at the corner . . . like Gareth Owen’s desperate challenge on Clegg when Thunder’s left winger gobbled up a wayward Oldham pass and looked set to go the distance in the last few minutes.
With backs like Clegg, Lewis Young, Kieran Gill and Misi Taulapapa able to go the full length and Thunder going for broke by throwing the ball about and playing wing-to-wing rugby, the last quarter of an hour was a nail-biting time for home fans.
Visiting halves QLT and Nick Newton were no mugs, either, so Oldham had to keep their wits about them from start to finish.
Despite losing prop Liam McAvoy with an ankle injury in the first few minutes, Thunder made a blistering start on the back of two early handling errors by Roughyeds, who also conceded the first two penalties.
Pressure ended when quick ball movement from left to right enabled Newman and Young to get Taulapapa over in the corner for a try which Clarke narrowly failed to improve.
Oldham’s response was clinical. They forced Thunder into a couple of errors and Bridge, Hawkyard and Joy all went close before Hewitt’s grubber to the posts caused panic and Langtree pounced for the touchdown.
Crook added the extras for a 6-4 Oldham lead. While grateful for small mercies Roughyeds must have wondered whey they were so few points ahead after dominating the half territorially and having more of the possession too.
Both sides defended stoutly but Thunder were next to score when QLT timed his pass to perfection on a right-to-left shift and second-row man Joel Edwards sailed through a gap to put the visitors back in front.
Crucially, Clarke put his conversion attempt narrowly wide for a second time whereas Paul Crook made no mistake on each of his three attempts, one of them off the right-hand touchline.
It came after a try for Zack McComb which closely followed the Edwards try for Thunder.
Hewitt cross-kicked high for the right-hand corner and McComb and Clegg both challenged for it, the Oldham centre peeling away on the ricochet to regain possession and use his strength to get over in the corner.
Crook’s goal was a beauty, giving Oldham a four-point lead although it was two tries apiece; the value of an accurate and reliable marksman being all too clearly demonstrated in a tight game like this.
Two resolute defences and a swirling wind encouraged both teams to put the ball high. In two instances Oldham were given offside on the kick chase and worse was to follow when Kyran Johson and Ritchie Hawkyard seemed to leave a high kick by Newton to each other.
The ball took two wicked bounces and despite Hawkyard’s best efforts to retrieve the situation Sam Lukley was able to knock it back into the hands of the onrushing Taulapapa, who went in unopposed.
This time Clarke’s goal attempt was true and Oldham trailed 14-12 with 25 minutes left.
It was anybody’s game, which added to the tension, and Oldham brought the house down when Johnson flew up the left wing. He had Hawkyard on his inside, but he tried to sell the dummy and go outside full-back Young, damaging an ankle in the process.
Thunder’s defence was awry, however, and when Oldham moved the ball quickly inside the defence seemed to miraculously open up for a fresh and energised Beckett, who saw his chance and took it gleefully.
Crook’s goal pushed Scott Naylor’s men into an 18-14 lead with 17 minutes left.
There followed a hectic finale which had both sets of fans on tenterhooks in the run-up to the hooter which signalled desperate disappointment for Thunder and unbridled joy for Roughyeds.
Championship rugby, here we come!
Scorers: Oldham — tries, Langtree, McComb, Beckett; goals, Crook 3/3; Thunder — tries, Taulapapa (2), Edwards; goals, Clarke 1/3.
Oldham: Hawkyard; Kay, McComb, Leeming, Johnson; Crook, Hewitt; Joy, Owen, Law, Bridge, Langtree, Bent. Subs: Spencer, Wilkinson, Whittel, Beckett.
Thunder: Young; Taulapapa, Craig, Gill, Clegg; Laulu-Togagae, Newman; McAvoy, Carlile, Luckey, Edwards, Clarke, H Aldous; Subs: Simons, J Aldous, Doyle-Manga, Fitsimmons.
Referee: Garth Hewer; Pens: 2-5; HT: 6-4; Att: 1,204.