(After extra time)
ALMOST 25 years to the day since John Pendlebury’s drop goal gave them a 19-18 Wembley win over St Helens, Halifax slipped out of the Challenge Cup against Pendlebury’s hometown club as Martyn Ridyard’s golden-point one-point gave the home side victory by a carbon-copy scoreline.
In freezing conditions more reminiscent of mid-January than early May, Karl Harrison’s visitors led 16-6 at the break before seeing their lead pegged as Leigh, 32-18 winners at the Shay nine days ago, rallied in the second half.
Leigh then went 18-16 ahead, before their visitors levelled on the final play of a compelling game through a Paul Handforth penalty.
This was one of those afternoons when defeat would have been harsh on either side, with scarcely a fag paper between two completely committed opponents.
With the weather and pitch helping no one, both teams made mistakes, and both Harrison and Leigh’s Paul Rowley will point to moments when their players could have done better.
But the truth is this was a game that could have gone either way, with the imponderables - bounces of the ball, refereeing decisions – probably making the difference in the end.
Leigh had made a near ideal start, forcing successive drop outs with intelligent kicks from John Duffy and Ridyard as the visitors clung to a 0-0 scoreline.
They survived comfortably enough, but put themselves under further pressure when Handforth inexplicably put the ball down on the final tackle of the next set.
A penalty for a high shot on Rob Parker quickly followed as the early pattern of last week’s game was reversed.
Fax soon had their turn, drawing three successive penalties as they camped in the Leigh 20, but were unable to breach a defence that looked predictably well drilled and highly motivated.
They went close, Handforth sending Craig Ashall through, but the loose forward being pulled back for a forward pass.
It took 24 minutes for the deadlock to finally be broken, Handforth’s kick rebounding off two Leigh players, referee Phil Bentham waving play on and half back Anthony Thackeray cleaning up for the try.
Lee Paterson converted for a 6-0 lead and it should have doubled immediately as the visitors swept down the right through Thackeray and Dane Manning.
They did everything right until the final pass; Ben Heaton giving Rob Worrincy a ball that never looked on and the winger was unable to reel it in.
They paid a high price for their profligacy, two penalties ferrying Leigh downfield and Duffy, such a proverbial pain in the neck a week earlier, twisted over and Ridyard levelled with the conversion.
Fax surged back though and Dane Manning’s lofted pass to the right gave Worrincy enough room to score the try he should have had five minutes earlier.
Paterson was on target from the touchline as half time approached and Fax’s 12-6 lead became 16-6 just before the hooter, Paterson diving in on the left after Ashall’s offload and cool heads and good hands from Handforth and Ross Divorty had left the defence in tatters.
The centre’s conversion drifted millemetres wide, but the visitors began the second half with assurance, playing the percentages cleverly and forcing Leigh to run the ball out from their own line.
They had the chance to stretch their lead on 48 minutes with a straightforward penalty in front of the posts, but chose to run the ball instead, a decision that backfired when the attack got its wires crossed on the first tackle and Ashall was penalised for obstruction.
Leigh broke almost immediately through Sam Hopkins, but Ryan Fieldhouse came up with a copybook tackle in midfield.
The full back then had to stretch out a desperate boot to clear Ridyard’s grubber kick at the expense of a dropout, and it took another great stop from Fieldhouse and some quality teamwork on the line to prevent Stuart Littler and Bob Beswick scoring on back to back plays.
On the final tackle of 18 though, Fax cracked; back rower Tommy Goulden charging over to the right of the posts and Ridyard cutting the deficit to 16-12 with the conversion.
The visitors were under increasing pressure now, with Leigh buoyed by adrenalin, a tailwind and a steady flow of decisions going their way.
And, eventually, it told, James Laithwaite barging over on the left and Ridyard kicking the goal to put his side ahead for the first time at 18-16.
The home side were getting the rub of the green now, typified as Gregg McNally’s knock on 10 metres from his own line was allowed to pass, the visitors conceding a penalty as they pointed out the obvious to referee Bentham.
The loss of Heaton with a suspected broken leg put Fax at a further disadvantage, but they forced an immediate drop out through Thackeray’s kick and Paterson’s chase.
Penkywicz then put Robinson over, but the prop was unable to force the ball down in a three-man tackle.
And they had half a chance as they shifted the ball back to the right, but Callum Casey, filling in for Heaton at centre, could not find the right pass under massive pressure on the last tackle.
That was excusable; Handforth’s failure to find touch with a rouutine penalty in the last five minutes was not.
Neither was Barlow’s concession of a penalty in possession, and Leigh looked to have sealed it when Mat Gardner claimed Ridyard’s cross kick only to lose the ball in the act of scoring.
Fax weren’t done though, forcing a series of errors as Leigh struggled to escape their own 20.
The visitors looked to have run out of chances, but with time virtually out, Reittie was obstructed on the left as he chased Thackeray’s cross kick and Bentham blew for the penalty.
With Paterson down injured and heading for the showers, Handforth atoned for his earlier misjudgement with a coolly taken angled penalty to send the game into extra time.
Leigh almost seized the upper hand immediately, Ridyard’s kick off hitting the post and Fieldhouse needing to scramble desperately to reclaim the ball.
Fax steadied the ship and forged themselves a half chance on half way; Barlow slipping the ball out of the tackle but Fieldhouse was unable to take a difficult catch.
If the pass had found its mark, the Fax number one – who was bizarrely wearing a number one on the front of his shirt as well as the back after an apparent mix up in the kit room – would have been home free.
Instead, Leigh worked towards the posts and although Fax closed down their first attempt at a one pointer, they suffered some bad luck when Ryan Brierley’s terrible attempt spiralled into the in-goal, forcing Penkywicz to scramble back.
The hooker got to the ball, but was unable to run it clear, giving the Centurions another set of possession.
That always looked likely to prove a costly shift in momemtum, and so it proved as the home side shuffled the ball downfield before giving Ridyard the time and space to slot over the winner.