Halifax Irish maintained their remarkable record at Woodhead with a 22-6 win over holders Brighouse Rangers in today’s Joseph Fee Memorial Halifax Cup final.
Anthony Irvine’s side have played in six of the last eight Halifax ARL showpiece games at Old Brodleians RUFC and won them all.
When they arrived at the ground and found they had been allocated a different dressing room to usual, it crossed Irvine’s mind that it might not be their day.
But the coach, just 20 when he took the reins at Irish a decade ago, didn’t need to worry as Irish’s heavyweights eventually battered their plucky, division-lower opponents into submission.
Brighouse led for more than half of the match through second row Andy Seager’s 12th-minute try, converted by Darren Robinson.
However, Irish had four big and destructive props in man of the match Dave Smith, Joss Bentley, Richard Mudd and Jack Holmes, and they were rotated successfully to crack their opponents’ defence, leading to four tries and three conversions in the final 25 minutes.
“It panned out pretty much as we expected,” said Irvine. “We kept it tight in the first half against what is probably a 20 point hill and they tired in the end.”
His opposite number at Brighouse, Craig Young, was left to rue injuries to playmaker Darren Robinson and prop Lee Buckley just before half time and said: “I thought we played the better rugby but their size did us - they must have been two stones a man heavier.”
With the breeze at their backs and a firm ground under a good covering of grass, Rangers twice kicked the ball dead early on and Irish second row Arran Illingworth was the first to threaten the try line after good work up the middle from Bentley, Andrew Brocklehurst and Chris Norman.
It was Rangers who drew first blood, though, after winger Andrew Collins had sped away down the touchline in front of the clubhouse. The passing wasn’t exactly text book, centre Reece Spurr and then scorer Seager both picking up the ball off the floor before the move was completed. Robinson converted from just to the side of the posts.
Irish looked to have replied five minutes later when Norman kicked inside and fullback Michael Reed, in acres of space near to the posts, leisurely gathered the ball and touched down. However, after a debate between referee Phil Huck and a touch judge, a scrum was awarded to Rangers.
Ex-Halifax, Salford and London loose forward Brocklehurst was prominent for Irish. His poor pass cost his side the chance of a score wide on the left but he got back to make an important tackle as Brighouse threatened again towards the end of the half.
A pattern had been established with Irish trying to muscle their way down the middle and the smaller, quicker Rangers players looking to stretch the play through Jamie Barraclough and young Ben Wickens.
Brighouse might have had a further success early in the second half when Mark Horne gathered a high pass and burst through but the experienced fullback tried to float out a pass wide when perhaps he should have gone for the line himself.
The Irish fans in a modest crowd were frustrated again when Aaron Brown looped round several Rangers defenders and somehow made it to the line but he was ruled to have put a foot in touch.
Irish weren’t disappointed for long, increasingly-influential hooker Michael Holden wriggling past a couple of defenders and going in five metres to the left of the posts. Brocklehurst’s kick made it 6-6 on 56 minutes.
The dam had burst and young centre Hamish Barnes twisted out of a tackle to give Irish the lead four minutes later.
Brocklehurst miscued his attempted conversion, to the delight of the Rangers fans, but he struck an excellent goal from the other side to make it 16-6 after 68 minutes following Bentley’s unstoppable run from the 22 line.
Irish winger Gerrard Rollings almost made it to the try line in the left-hand corner after tiring Brighouse had coughed up possession on half-way.
It was left to Smith to round things off with two minutes left, gathering Holmes’s low pass and diving over from close range to give Brocklehurst an easy extra two points.