Nottingham Outlaws blew an 18-0 lead to narrowly lose to the Royal Artillery in a pulsating Help for Heroes charity match on Saturday.
However, the Gunners showed their character and never-say-die attitude to battle back and edge a thrilling game 27-22.
The match, being held to raise money for injured soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, began with a minutes silence to remember one of the Gunners’ players, Bombardier Craig Hopson from the 40th Regiment RA, who died on operations in Afghanistan in 2009.
The Outlaws, kitted in the special commemorative playing strip, dominated the early goings and soon went 4-0 ahead through loose forward George Strachan.
The move started deep in Nottingham territory after right winger Ali Waring was bundled into touch, only for the Gunners to squander the field position and give Nottingham the ball straight back from a knock on which Simon Chilcott picked up.
The centre raced down the pitch 40 metres before the chasing defenders caught up with Chilcott only to give away a penalty for holding down.
From the resulting penalty, the Outlaws worked their way closer to the try line and captain Paul Calland fed Strachan an inside ball and the fan favourite finished the move off with a typical no nonsense run to touch down. Calland’s conversion made it 6-0.
Five minutes later the Outlaws extended their lead as they took advantage of another penalty for holding down. As Nottingham appeared to be preparing to strike down their right hand side, Calland switched play across to his half back partner Jimmy Lewis. The sliding Artillery defence could not re-act quick enough and a short pass from Lewis was picked up by the on-rushing Dan Reeds who drove to the line to make the score 10-0. Calland made it two from two to extend the lead further.
Momentum was with the home team and 3 minutes later it was 18-0. Melbourne Weir latched onto a pass from debutant Eddie Shaw on the half way line and tip-toed his way down the left touchline to score before Calland landed his third successful kick.
After their third try, however, the Outlaws seemed to step off the gas and uncharacteristic knock ons littered the remainder of their attacks in the first half. Luckily for them, it was mostly contagious and the Gunners were guilty of the same error with the exception of one scoring drive which made the score at half time 18-6 in favour of the hosts.
The second half started in much the same way as the first one ended with knock-ons and high tackles making it a stop-start affair inside the first 10 minutes of the re-start.
The Gunners were the first to take advantage of the errors and a quick tap near the goal line caught the Outlaws defence napping and the lead was cut to eight points.
The try instilled further belief into the Artillery that they could make a come-back and only a try saving tackle from Josh Ladbury stopped the lead decreasing even further.
However, it was the Outlaws who were next on the score sheet after they benefited from a crossing penalty against the Gunners who were threatening once more in Nottingham territory.
A jinking run by Calland was well supported by Oliver Crick and the hooker, playing in just his second match of 2010 following injury, had to use every inch of his frame to plant the ball down for a try. Calland missed the conversion to leave the scores at 22-10.
Star prop Adam Millward, voted Outlaws man-of-the-match, was guilty of knocking on at the line just minutes later which would have given the visitors a huge mountain to climb going into the last 20 minutes.
The Artillery hit back with a converted try to cut the lead to 22-16 and the momentum was clearly with them as their fitness took over.
More pressure was piled on a dogged Outlaws defence but that pressure soon told. The Gunners forced a goal line drop out and from the resulting set of six, Weir fumbled a grubber kick and the Artillery gratefully accepted the invitation and added four more points to their score. They were unable to draw level though as the conversion was missed.
The visitors then took the lead for the first time in the game with just seven minutes remaining with a converted try and the Outlaws trailed 22-26.
The Outlaws are never one to back down from a battle though and went in search of regaining the lead. They had the Gunners on the back foot just 10 metres out only for a controversial penalty against Strachan to stop Nottingham in their tracks.
A high shot by Strachan a minute later gave the Gunners field position to work a drop goal and increase the lead to 22-27.
The Outlaws never know when to say quit and fought until the final whistle, which came moments after Millward was stopped inches short of the line as the Gunners defence held on firm.
The score line was, of course, always going to be second best as the day was all about raising money for Help for Heroes.
Outlaws head coach Martin Crick said, “It’s always disappointing to lose a game of rugby league but the victory was not important today. The most important thing is to raise as much money as possible for a truly great cause.
“On the pitch, I was impressed with all my guys but the ones that stand out for me are Dan Reeds who never shirked his duty all afternoon and never once shied away from the contest, the students who made their debut for us today did themselves and the club proud with their attitude out there and man-of-the-match Adam (Millward) played just as tough as ever.
“The Gunners impressed me with their attitude and fought back well from 18-0 down when teams with less character would have given up.
“Off the pitch, I know a lot of money has been raised already and there is still plenty to do so that amount will be added to I’m sure. It really is a worthwhile cause and I, as head coach of Nottingham Outlaws, am privileged to be involved.”