Fax learning to play it tight

Halifax 14

Sheffield Eagles 12

THIS was a crucial, potentially pivotal, afternoon in Halifax’s season.

Matt Calland’s side notched their second Co-operative Championship victory of the year with as tough, gritty and – generally - disciplined a win as there has been in their recent history.

It finally lifted them off the bottom of the league ladder, although technically they remain in a relegation place given Toulouse’s exemption from the drop.

Crucially, it also lifted the 2010 Grand Final winners into a position where they can continue to entertain thoughts of a second half of the season charge into the top six, a notion that would have looked dead in the water if they had lost here.

There are ways of winning though.

And while there were still plenty of rough edges that need smoothing – notably a couple of tactical gaffes that almost handed the Eagles the win in the closing minutes - this was a different kind of Halifax performance. Much less flash, more more bash.

You have to go back to June 2007, when the club’s current assistant coach Damian Ball scored the winning try in a rain-soaked 12-6 success over Widnes, to find the last time Fax came out on the right side of an arm-wrestle like this.

The influence of Brian Noble was in-your-face obvious: two weeks of long, difficult evenings with the former Great Britain coach, majoring on putting the defensive doors back on their hinges, are paying rapid and unmistakeable dividends.

As well as a collective improvement, twice Fax players – first Lee Paterson, then Stephen Bannister – came up with try saving tackles they had no right to make to deny Andy Henderson and Vinnie Finnigan. The shift in attitude is obvious.

The Eagles might still point to a three-tries-to-two scoreline, with prop Mitch Stringer’s missed conversion after Vinnie Finnigan’s late try costing them a share of the spoils.

But the truth was they didn’t deserve it after Fax out-scrapped, out-spoiled and out-fought the competition’s champion scrappers, spoilers and fighters.

The only real downside was a lack of creativity going forward at times, with Australian half back Ben Black injured and the veteran stand off Graham Holroyd apparently ill.

If Noble and Calland can fuse the two halves of Fax’s game together in the coming weeks and months, the sparks might just start to fly.

The Eagles had forced the first opportunity of the game inside a minute, taking advantage of Rob Worrincy’s hesitation to drive their former wingman behind his own goalline and force the drop out.

Fax survived comfortably enough and there was then a lengthy delay after the visiting half back Simon Brown – who was later cleared of serious damage - suffered a suspected neck injury after colliding with Worrincy as the Fax player ran the ball clear.

Brown was eventually stretchered off, allowing play to resume and Fax to get themselves on the front foot.

Calland’s side forced successive drop outs, Danny Jones and Sean Penkywicz both producing quality kicks, and the pressure told, Penkywicz and Bob Beswick firing the ball to the left where Stephen Bannister ran a typically intelligent try-scoring line.

Jones kicked the conversion, but the Eagles levelled on quarter time with their first significant break of the game, the commentator’s nightmare that is full back Quentin Laulu-Togagae scoring after a raid down the Fax left.

Kyle Wood missed the conversion to leave Fax 6-4 ahead, although it needed some great cover defence to force an error from Misi Taulapapa after Henderson had split Fax down the centre soon after.

The Eagles enjoyed their best spell of the game at that point as Fax’s early resolve wavered slightly, and they finally made it pay on 32 minutes, back rower Alex Szostak forcing his way over the line from close range.

Stringer scuffed the conversion to leave the contest delicately poised at 8-6, but it took a brilliant chase back by Paterson to deny Henderson after the ball went loose in the middle of the field, the centre not only hauling down the runaway hooker, but managing to deny him the quick play the ball that would have meant an equally certain try.

The opening exchanges of the second period were predictable nip-and-tuck, with both sides well aware the next score would be crucial.

It went Fax’s way, Penkywicz sneaking over from close range on 52 minutes, and even with Jones slicing the conversion, the home side had the lead again at 10-8.

A fortnight ago, that would have been a fag-paper thin advantage, but this already felt different, especially when Bannister mercilessly smashed Finnigan into the corner flag.

And when Jim Gannon was held up over the line from another Penkywicz pass, it emphasised Fax’s increasing superiority, which was only really threatened by a series of increasingly bizarre decisions from the already enigmatic young referee Warren Turley.

The Eagles discipline got worse and worse as the half went on, and although Fax ran the first penalty they got, Jones sensibly kicked the next two to set up a 14-8 lead with 13 minutes remaining.

It was at this point the tactics went a a little crazy.

First, Fax missed an obvious opportunity to go for a drop goal.

Then, inexplicably, after Finnigan had finished off an Alex Rowe break to haul the Eagles back to within two points, they opted for a short, grubber restart that failed to travel 10 minutes, putting the visitors firmly on the front foot.

Penkywicz then conceded a penalty for a grapple tackle as the pressure built, and there was a sigh of relief around the ground when the ball finally ended up on the floor and Fax could clear their lines.

That was pretty much that apart from a brief, but impressively heated, brawl, which ended with Rowe and Dylan Nash – who had run a ridiculously long way to get into the action – in the sin bin.

The Eagles got the penalty, but Fax held out for a fully deserved win.