HALIFAX must take at least a bonus point from Wednesday night’s long-haul trip to Whitehaven if they want to avoid a repeat of last season’s ignominious exit from the Northern Rail Cup.
That was the upshot after Paul Handforth’s injury time penalty, coolly struck from 40 metres after referee Jamie Leahy - more of him later, by the way - had penalised the home side for holding down the former Wakefield scrum half, gave Batley victory in a thriller at the Shay.
On the balance of natural justice it was probably no less than they deserved after carefully constructing a 22-6 interval lead and then just about recovering their poise after the home side had roared back to lead 24-22.
So how did Halifax, fresh from a week’s training in the Spanish sunshine, find themselves so far behind in the first place?
Well, for 40 minutes they simply were never in this game. Awful would be a fair description.
Batley ran harder, tackled harder and played smarter, qualities that tend to be rewarded on the scoreboard.
But one half-time telling off later, Fax were suddenly, as if by magic, irresistible, dominating huge swathes of the second period.
Matt Calland will presumably spend the next couple of days trying to make sure that he doesn’t end up with a similar performance of two halves at the Recreation Ground.
If he comes up with the right answers, Fax will be through to the quarter finals and this defeat will be academic, a mere blip on the results sheet.
But if they crumble in Cumbria, this slipshod first half will start to look very costly indeed, both on the field and on the balance sheet.
The die had been cast almost from the start, with Batley prop Sean Hesketh charging over after only three minutes, Handforth - who made a real nuisance of himself from start to finish - kicking the conversion to set up a 6-0 lead.
Fax’s riposte was reasonably immediate, Paul White touching down Ben Black’s slide rule kick nine minutes in and Danny Jones hammering over a brilliant conversion from the sideline.
And there should have been another try within a minute, Black and Bob Beswick carving open a huge gap for Miles Greenwood and the full back racing clear before David Larder ploughed over, only for Leahy to call play back and award Fax a penalty for offside.
That was pretty much as good as it got for the home side, with Wayne Reittie and Dane Manning crossing for back to back scores at the end of the first quarter, Handforth converting the latter for a 16-6 lead.
Fax were all at sea now - particularly the out-of-touch Rob Worrincy - and it was hardly a surprise when Gareth Moore pounced for his side’s fourth try and kicked the conversion for 22-6.
And it might have been even worse if Worrincy had not set foot on the road to redemption by helping to prevent centre Danny Maun from grounding the ball in the final minute of the half.
Whatever Calland said during the break clearly galvanised his side, who scored within a minute of the restart when young back rower Joe Chandler charged over on the left from Jones’ pass.
The stand off kicked the conversion and Fax were suddenly all over their visitors like the proverbial rash.
Hooker Sean Penkywicz almost scored from close range before Black flung the ball wide to James Haley and the centre slid in a perfect kick for Worrincy to score on the right.
Jones hammered the kick over from touch to cut the gap to 22-18, and when Worrincy beat inumerable defenders with a combination of footwork, strength and persistence to score next to the posts on 61 minutes, Jones’ conversion gave Fax the lead at 24-22.
Batley lost Ian Preece to the sin bin immediately after for a professional foul, and if Jones had not been collared by the defence after dancing clear close to the line, this game would surely have been over.
As it was, three straight penalties shuttled the Bulldogs downfield and Handforth levelled the scores at 24-24 with 13 minutes to go.
Handforth and Bob Beswick both traded failed drop goal attempts in the exchanges that followed, before Batley hooker Kris Lythe attempted to headbutt Penkywicz with five minutes remaining after conceding a penalty on half way.
That Lythe was sent off was hardly a surprise; that Penkywicz got a yellow card that ended his involvement in the contest was a decision that only Mr Leahy would be able to explain.
Fax looked to have made the subsequent possession pay when Black hammered over a Grand Final-esque drop goal with three minutes remaining.
But Handforth, probably the best player on the field, had the last word when he made a half break on half way, drew what Mr Leahy considered to be a penalty, and stepped up to kick the winning points.