Mikhailo Troyan’s last-action try - taking Oleksandr Skorbach’s fine cross kick - ensured that Ukraine remain undefeated at this level after seven matches, fending off a late Maltese challenge to win 34-22 in front of 500 fans at Marsa Sports Complex.
Troyan had been sin-binned just after the hour for a inappropriate reactions after AAron Grech high tackle on Troyan and, in his absence, the galvanised Knights crossed twice, through Nicky Maylor and outstanding Nathan Falzon, to cut the deficit to eight points.
But as Troyan (pictured) prepared to come back, and with the visitors out of substitutes in 31 degree heat, winger Anatolii Grankovskiy’s clearing run and Falzon being called back on an interception for being offside, saw the visitors hang on, before finally breathing easy with their sixth try on the final play.
“It was a difficult game, but our bench really helped us,” said Ukraine head coach Gennady Veprik. “Our experienced players who were among our substitutes really helped us get through. Greece will be an even harder game for us even though it is in Kharkiv, but we have time to prepare, this experience will do us good and, hopefully, we will play even better.”
In their first game on home soil for almost three years, the hosts fell behind in the seventh minute, hooker Dmytro Semerenko crossing from close in, Volodimir Mazepa with the conversion. Malta hit straight back, Falzon, whose runs were a constant threat, finding a hole and ghosting through, Shaun Chircop with the extras to level.
More powerful up the middle, the visitors took the lead and control on the half hour, skipper Skorbach darting over and Andrieichenko Sviatoslav breaking clear just before the break, Mazepa’s third goal making it 6-18 as the sides went to cool off.
With a slight breeze accompanying them on their return, Malta made a poor start to the second period, losing possession and conceding a penalty, Skorbach’s fine inside pass sending ever-involved loose forward Oleksandr Scherbina over.
With Malta struggling to make headway, another superb run from Falzon set the position for hooker Jake Attard to snipe over from dummy half, Malcom Attard converting, but the Knights put the re-start out on the full, Grankovskiy weaved past three would-be tacklers and Semerenko crossed for his second, Mazepa maintaining his perfect record with the boot.
Troyan’s yellow card immediately lifted the home resolve, victim Jake Attard staying on the field as Falzon’s great soft pass sent in Nicky Maylor out wide, the conversion missed. Another high tackle gave Malta position and this time Ian Catania sent Falzon between defenders for a deserved score, Malcolm Attard with the goal from an acute angle.
Back up to their full complement for the closing stages, Ukraine kept the ball tight, Troyan ensuring victory at the finale.
Malta head coach Sam Blyton-Keep commented: “I can’t criticise the guys, the heart, passion and commitment they showed was phenomenal, the final scoreline doesn’t reflect their effort. Every one of them gave their all and I couldn’t ask for more.
“Nathan and Jake were outstanding but I’m especially proud of the domestic boys, they’ve done all that could have been asked of them in the last three months and put everything on the line today. We can push on from here against Greece – we’ll give them a fair shot.