It's a relegation battle for Middlesbrough this season

THE second half of the season will be a struggle against relegation for Middlesbrough, just as it was last year.

They showed plenty of spirit on Saturday and defended well to stay in a game in which they were on the back foot almost throughout. But how they crave the return of some of the skilful players who have moved on in recent years.

They are confident Andrew Baggett will be back once his Blaydon days are over. Not quite in the mould of England trio Phil Horrocks-Taylor, Alan Old and Rob Andrew, he remains a very accomplished fly half, while another useful No 10 who came through the club was Ross Winney, who is still playing for Burnage.

Wingers have also blossomed at Acklam Park, starting with Rory Underwood. Jon Steel and Simon Webster played for Scotland, Peter Homan made his league debut for London Scottish last month, and Newcastle's Zach Kibirige played some junior rugby for Boro.

But it's in the back row where they have really felt the recent exodus as they now struggle to field a settled unit.

Carl Kirwan is making a big impact with Championship leaders London Welsh, Josh Burridge is with Wharfedale, and Rory Duff and Ollie Hodgson are playing for Darlington Mowden Park.

Hodgson is also in the Newcastle Falcons Academy and going back a few more years Shaun Cassidy and Tom Seymour also left Boro for Newcastle.

There are some promising young players in the current line-up. Adam Nolson did well at full back and this season's new front row of Isa Warsama, Ash Kearney and Richard Lonsdale coped admirably against bigger opponents. But without an injection of skill they will need all their strength of spirit to stay afloat in North One East.

Wheatley Hills are a Doncaster club generally known for a tough, forward-based game. Their theme tune might once have been 'When the boot comes in' but they preferred to run the ball rather than boot it downwind in the first half.

They led only 10-5 and with the wind getting stronger Boro looked likely winners when they went 12-10 ahead seven minutes after the break. But the visitors got straight back on top and their domination would have produced a bigger margin but for Boro's tenacity.

The pre-match talk was of Wheatley Hills having their best player suspended for three years for punching a referee. But his replacement at No 8 proved influential, breaking off a scrum in his own half and romping 50 metres to set up the first half try.

That effort quickly cancelled out a good try by Boro, which also started with their No 8, Iain Bradford, picking up from a scrum in his own half. He fed Peter Wright, whose chip ahead was hacked on by Jack Bircham and when the forwards won quick ruck ball it was moved left for Connor Foley to score.

The visiting left winger appeared to have scored five minutes before half-time, but the first of a series of five-metre scrums was awarded and Boro did extremely well to hold out.

Their early second half pressure was rewarded when lock Phil Harland crashed over and Matthew Todd converted, but from that point it increasingly became a question of when Wheatley Hills would score the winner.

It took until the 70th minute. They should have scored in the right corner after creating an overlap, but they kept the pressure on and the No 8 touched down a pushover try. The defeat left Boro one point above the relegation places and after two weeks off they face a tough January programme, starting at West Hartlepool.

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