SUNDERLAND made hard work of it, but a late try secured their victory in a thrilling 33-31 win over league newcomers Acklam.
And the visitors proved just how well they have adapted when they took the lead less than 10 minutes into the game.
A delicate chip over the top from their scrum-half caught the Sunderland defence napping, allowing Acklam’s winger to collect and score in the corner. The conversion gave them a 7-0 lead.
It looked as though Sunderland had clawed their way back into the game when Jake Belfield crossed, but was judged to have knocked-on.
It wasn’t long before Sunderland got onto the scoresheet, though, when scrum-half Matt Francis spotted a gap down the blindside from five yards out and burrowed between two defenders to score. Greg Littlewood added the conversion to level the scores.
The try proved to be Francis’ last involvement of the game as he limped off with an ankle injury, to be replaced by Sam Vaughan, with Mark Henry moving in from the wing to his more familiar scrum-half position.
You would never have guessed it was the first time Henry and fly-half Guy Kingsley-Smith had played together, as the pair dictated play superbly.
Acklam reclaimed the lead with a penalty, but Sunderland made sure they went into half-time ahead with a second try.
The ball bobbled free from a Sunderland kick and into the path of Andy Black, who was able to canter over untouched.
Sunderland came out with all guns blazing in the second half.
A lineout inside the Acklam 22 provided the platform for Sunderland to set up a driving maul and with some ease, the Sunderland pack powered over the line allowing Andy Black to touch down for his second try of the game.
Littlewood added the conversion to extend Sunderland’s lead to 19-10.
With less than 10 minutes gone in the second half Sunderland clinched a bonus point as Sean Bellon raced clear to score under the posts. Littlewood’s conversion made the score 26-10.
However, if Sunderland thought they had the game in the bag, Acklam had other ideas and threw everything at Sunderland.
A mix of good Acklam back play and sloppy Sunderland defence allowed them two quick scores to narrow Sunderland’s lead to just two points.
With their tails up, Acklams spun the ball wide, allowing their centre to score under the sticks.
The conversion meant that with less than 10 minutes to go, Acklam lead 31-26.
Sunderland now knew they would have to dig deep if they were to get anything out of the game.
Littlewood narrowly missed a penalty from the 10-metre line, but with time running out, it was a try that Sunderland needed.
And as has been the case so many times in the past, it was club stalwart Tony Irwin who delivered.
Having worked their way into the Acklam 22, Sunderland were awarded a penalty just five metres out.
Opting for the scrum, Sunderland looked for the pushover, but with Acklam holding strong, Irwin, making a rare first team appearance due to a back row injury crisis, picked from the base of the scrum and powered over the line, despite the attention of two Acklam defenders.
With the scores level at 31-31 the pressure was on Littlewood, but he remained calm and slotted the conversion from out wide.
With only a couple of minutes remaining, Sunderland’s forwards took control to see out the remainder of the game in the Acklam 22 and seal a dramatic win.
H There was more good news for Sunderland when the seconds beat Seaham firsts 15-10.
Seaham were looking for a 10th straight victory, which proved just the motivation for the seconds against their local rivals.
Sunderland’s scores came from Heffernan, O’Donnovan and Hinder.
H Sunderland thirds narrowly failed to make it three out of three as they lost out 26-17 to Middlesboro.
Sunderland’s tries came from Stevie Graham and Lewis Swann, with two conversions and a penalty from John Grainger.