SUNDERLAND were made to work hard for a 36-26 win at North Shields on Saturday after a second-half injury crisis in their back line.
They managed to come through though to pick up all five points and maintain their challenge in Durham and Northumberland Division Two.
With Ryton beating Whitley Bay, the promotion race became even closer at the half-way point of the season – with Ryton top, two points clear of Sunderland and Whitley Bay.
Sunderland started the game well, spending the first ten minutes almost exclusively in the North Shields half. The hosts proved a tough nut to crack though and their well-drilled defence held tight.
Against the run of play, North Shields capitalised on a Sunderland mistake to open the scoring as they ran the ball under the posts. The conversion made it 7-0.
Tom Townend missed two long-range penalties before John Drummond cut a superb line which split the North Shields defence and nobody could catch him as he crossed to open the scoring for Sunderland to make it 7-5.
Sunderland were given another penalty 10 metres out from the North Shields line. This time, they opted for the scrum and drove their opponents back over the try-line to give Martin Watt the first of his three tries to take the score to 12-7.
Sunderland conceded a needless penalty which gave North Shields field position and some good work from their pack saw them go over on the blind side.
The visitors went back on the offence and after a number of pick and drives had taken them to within a couple of metres of the line, they spun the ball wide and Michael Heffernan popped up in the centres to go over and regain the lead. The conversion made it 19-12 at half-time.
The second half was an equally close affair. North Shields drew first blood when pressure through their forwards allowed them to power over from close range to bring the scores level.
A fourth try brought the bonus point for the home side when they spun the ball wide and crossed in the corner to make the score 26-19.
Sunderland’s cause wasn’t helped by an injury crisis in the back line. Harry Levison was sidelined with a knee injury in the first half, before Gavin Stirling and Craig O’Donnovan both had to leave the field with hamstring injuries in the second half.
That forced a reshuffle that saw prop Tom Hirst move into the second row with Martin Watt and Andy Sumner forced out into the back line.
Stirling was able to return to the field so Watt could return to the pack, but with 15 minutes to go and two scores required for a Sunderland victory, it was do or die time.
A penalty was kicked to touch and the resulting catch and drive from the line-out was driven 25 mettres before it was illegally halted by the North Shields prop. He was sent to the bin for 10 minutes and Sunderland repeated the same move but this time Brian Finlay was driven over the line to take Sunderland to within two points.
Andy Sumner played out of his skin on the wing and made yards every time he touched the ball. And he created the try that regained the lead. After beating a number of Shields defenders and breaking down the wing, he was tackled and looked to be going into touch but he managed to offload to Martin Watt, who crashed over in the corner.
Sunderland still had time for one more score when they had a scrum five metres out from the hosts’s line. Sunderland’s pack put on the power and drove Shields back over their line once again for Watt to clinch his hat-trick.
Sunderland showed true character and grit to pull through, and they will again need to up their game for next week if they want to avenge their early-season defeat to Redcar.