Sunderland could not stop the juggernaut that is unbeaten Durham & Northumberland 1 leaders Acklam at Ashbrooke on Saturday, going down to a 39-12 defeat.
Richard Arrowsmith returned to the pack at loose head prop for Sunderland and long-term absentee Harry Connell returned to the wing.
Acklam benefitted from a Sunderland knock-on at the kickoff to spin the ball out wide and open the scoring, but were made to work hard throughout the game to eventually take the win, title and promotion.
A penalty followed for an offence when Sunderland were dominating the scrum, extending Acklam’s lead to 10-0.
Sunderland gathered composure and played some good phases of rugby, but undid a lot of their own hard work by conceding possession in the contact area, despite great defence in the tight.
Sunderland’s lineout and scrum caused Acklam problems throughout the game, even turning over their ball at the scrum, but they struggled to capitalize from possession in open play.
The front five worked tirelessly through the game in defence and attacking ball carriers.
Spotting space behind Acklam’s back three, Brad Fish’s box kick sent Harry Connell on a chase down the right wing, but Acklam escaped without conceding a point.
Ross Hughes made a great break from the base of a scrum taking Sunderland way beyond the gain line, but they were unable to capitalise from his efforts.
Sunderland continued to apply pressure, taking Acklam across the pitch. Then, on 22 minutes, they put the ball back through hands to pick out full back Leon Ryan, who cut a great line to run through attempted tackles to score out wide. The conversion was just wide.
Fifteen minutes into the second half, Sunderland had continued to pressure Acklam but were then punished with another three points lost from a penalty.
Then, within two minutes, Acklam scored again with some great support and offloading attacking play.
Richard Arrowsmith was unlucky to be penalised as he stopped an Acklam ball carrier in his tracks and as he was stripping the ball while the attacking player was holding on for all he was worth - the referee’s call of tackle was not heard resulting in the penaltybeing awarded for not releasing the tackled player.
A Sunderland scrum out wide advanced towards Acklam’s try line. Winger Connell eagerly waited in space out wide, but the scrum kept on going forward until Dan Gray picked and had a go - only to be well shackled on a crowded try line.
Applying pressure through the pack, Sunderland played their phases and after minutes of good defensive work Acklam succumbed as Ross Hughes was driven over the line to notch his first senior try, taking the score to 12-25 with a little over seven minutes to play.
Acklam were not done and ran in a further two tries to finish the game well clear.
Acklam were generous in their praise for Sunderland’s battling performance that did cause them problems all game.
Sunderland applauded Acklam’s achievement of sealing promotion and the league title with four games to play.
With further home games to come in a season that might run into May, Sunderland must continue to apply the same levels of pressure they have shown they can, and improve continuity, to be certain of safety.