EIGHT months after winning a final in the most dramatic of fashions, Halifax got a taste of what it feels like to lose one the same way.
This compelling Northern Rail Cup decider was deadlocked at 16-16 with just seconds remaining and heading for golden point extra time when Leigh stand off Martyn Ridyard, under too much pressure to go for the drop goal that had clearly been his plan, dummied clear down the right, sparking the move that ended with young winger Tom Armstrong diving over in the corner.
Leigh celebrated, Fax were beaten, denied even the chance of a comeback by the ticking clock.
It was a cruel climax to a contest that was never less than a great advert for Championship rugby league and the culmination of a frantic last 12 minutes packed with pivotal moments: A Bob Beswick 40/20 that bounced inches over the whitewash; referee Matthew Thomason playing advantage when Beswick was the victim of a blatant foul in backplay; a trio of incidents involving Danny Jones, a fluffed clearing kick, a singularly unfortunate ricochet and a late charge down; and, finally the high, reckless tackle from Dylan Nash that gifted Leigh the position for Armstrong’s try.
If any one of those incidents had fallen in Fax’s favour, this result may have been very different.
As it was, Fax, who had built a 10-0 half time lead with a display of supremely controlled aggression – the quality of their performance here probably merited victory more than it had done at Warrington in the 2010 Grand Final - were left with nothing but the pain and disappointment of defeat.
It had been Fax who carved open the first hint of an opening after six minutes, Beswick and Ben Black combining before the ball went right, where Rob Worrincy was able to take Danny Jones’ chip, but not able to use it.
Both teams had tries ruled out within two minutes of each other around the 10 minute mark, the video referee eventually getting Fax for offside after Paul Smith had sent Worrincy over in the corner following a Black bomb and then having to make a far more straight forward obstruction call after Stuart Donlan had crossed for Leigh.
Fax looked to have blown a great attacking position soon after when Steve Bannister’s long pass – on the first tackle of a re-started count – saw Paul White shovelled into touch by Steve Maden.
But some typically aggressive defence by Jacob Fairbank forced the ball loose and Fax again went to the right where Black produced a brilliant delayed pass, probably the best ball he has fired all year, to send Miles Greenwood soaring through a massive gap to score in the corner.
Jones could not convert, but was on target a couple of minutes later after a super catch from a flying James Haley set up the position from which Fax won a penalty for ball stealing.
By that stage, Fax were dominant, and it was no shock when they scored again on the half hour: Sam Barlow slipping out an offload, Sean Penkywicz drifting across the field and Bannister – just as he had against Featherstone in the Grand Final – running a perfect line and twisting over to the left of the posts.
Jones missed again, but by the time Fax made something approaching a genuine error, Greenwood knocking on 10 metres from Leigh’s line, the first half die was well and truly cast.
Leigh threatened ominously in their opening set of the second period, John Duffy looking sharp and Hull-bound half back Jamie Ellis stabbing in a dangerous looking kick which just rolled dead.
Worrincy then knocked on at a play the ball 40 metres out, although the winger may have had a case for a penalty too, putting the Centurions firmly on the front foot.
A penalty against Penkywicz made the situation worse, despite the hooker going some way towards redeeming himself with a thumping tackle on Robbie Paul, and eventually Ellis made just enough room for himself to squeeze over near the corner flag.
Mick Nanyn sent the conversion narrowly wide to leave the game balanced at 10-4, although Fax should have had a chance to re-establish their lead immediately when James Taylor spilled the kick off, only for Jon Goddard to knock on at dummy half on the second tackle.
Worrincy avoided a nightmare-ish embarrassment on 52 minutes, Leigh winger Dean McGilvray sliding into touch by inches after racing past Fax’s speedster to claim Ellis’ raking kick.
Fax atoned by forcing a drop out at the other end, but when that travelled almost the length of the field – Neil Cherryholme eventually stopping it 20 metres from his own line – and Greenwood produced another knock on, Leigh made them pay.
Prop Chris Hill is not going to Warrington for nothing, and the young front rower showed speed and agility to score by the posts, Nanyn levelling at 10-10 with 23 minutes remaining.
The momentum was firmly in Leigh’s favour then, Fax camped on their own goal line for long periods of a torrid third quarter.
They were still under the pump as the contest entered the final 20 minutes, but when they did get a chance with the ball, they made it stick.
Worrincy won the penalty in midfield, Barlow drove towards the post and Beswick and Black spread the ball right, where Haley showed skill and composure to put Worrincy over in the corner.
Jones needed to convert to give Fax something like breathing space, and he came up with the goods to make it 16-10 with 12 minutes to go.
There was always a lingering feeling that there was more drama just around the corner, although when Goddard came up with a miracle tackle to deny Armstrong on the line, Fax could have been forgiven for thinking it was their day.
But when Jones failed to get his kick away on half way, Leigh used the possession – and a 50/50 refereeing call, Thomason wiping the tackle count after Jones’ shoulder hit the ball – perfectly, Ridyard’s kick weighted exactly right for Ellis to score.
Nanyn levelled at 16-16 with five minutes to go and Fax never really regained control of the game after that, Armstrong ending the evening in the most dramatic of fashions.