HALIFAX prop Luke Ambler crowned a majestic individual performance with a last-play matchwinner as Karl Harrison’s side snatched all three points from a pulsating Co-operative Championship encounter at Leigh Sports Village.
Ambler, the former Ovenden junior who is with his hometown club on a dual-registration deal from Super League champions Leeds Rhinos, broke the line 15 metres out and then charged over the remnants of the Swinton defence to break an 18-18 deadlock.
It was Ambler’s second score of the night and secured a crucial victory for Fax, who had been out of sorts for long periods against a Lions side who belied their league status with a sharp, aggressive performance.
Harrison made the expected changes to his starting line up, with James Haley replacing the injured Steve Tyrer in the centre, Paul White getting Wayne Reittie’s place on the flank and Anthony Bowman edging out Callum Casey on the bench.
Fax had a couple of early attacking opportunities, but didn’t make the most of either; a knock on from Lee Paterson and an ill-judged attempt to run the ball from Paul Handforth letting the Lions off the hook.
And when Swinton found an attacking foothold of their own, it stuck; the full back Richie Hawkyard scything through to score and winger Gavin Dodd kicking the conversion for a 6-0 lead after five minutes.
The visitors improved after that, Makali Aizue – making a rare start – turning in some thunderous charges and Sean Penkywicz forcing a repeat set with a neat last tackle kick, only for Aizue to blot his copybook by dropping what looked like a scoring pass from the little hooker.
Fax promptly found themselves two scores down, Swinton making it two tries from two attacks when the centre Adam Higson twisted over on the right.
With Dodd again obliging from touch, Harrison’s side were looking at a 12-0 deficit after 17 minutes.
There was an element of panic in Fax’s play now, with too many forced passes ending with the ball on the floor.
They might have scored when Anthony Thackeray danced clear, and looked to have scored when Sam Barlow forced the ball down, only for referee Jamie Leahy to rule he had been held up.
They did score on the next play though, the excellent Ambler forcing the ball down and Paterson adding the conversion for a 12-6 scoreline.
The Lions were still fired up, but undermined their chances with a steady stream of penalties that continued to ferry Fax back downfield.
Fax, who were finally managing to complete some sets, had a great chance when Penkywicz cut the defence to ribbons down the middle, but the skipper did not see Ambler’s supporting run on the inside and instead drifted to the right where the move fizzled out.
Fax’s former half back Ian Watson was causing all kinds of problems, with even the little playmaker’s much-maligned running game wreaking havoc down the middle.
Despite everything, it was Fax who went closest to scoring before the break, Ryan Fieldhouse being stopped by Hawkyard inches short of the whitewash.
Harrison introduced Ross Divorty at half time, but the visitors had a let off within a minute, White doing brilliantly to chase down Dodd after Higson had broken clear down the right and the stand off Martin Ainscough dropping the ball cold in a great position on the left.
Penkywicz forced a drop out at the other end with a neat reverse kick, and although Thackeray was denied by desperate defence his half back partner Handforth would not be denied, darting in from a couple of metres out.
Paterson levelled at 12-12, but the visitors’ parity lasted a little over a minute, Ainscough diving on a chip through from loose forward Chaz I’Anson and Dodd kicking the goal for an 18-12 lead.
Jim Gannon was held up over the line as Swinton’s charmed life continued, and Rob Worrincy was called in touch after Handforth put him over down the short side.
The loss of Penkywicz soon after with a hamstring problem was a hammer blow for the visitors, Handforth going to hooker with Bowman on at half back.
The pair combined almost instantly, Handforth scooting clear 30 metres out and Bowman backing up on his outside for the touchdown.
Paterson was predictably on target from in front for 18-18 and the centre almost had a try of his own when Hawkyard just managed to ground Thackeray’s kick in-goal after letting the ball go loose.
As the clock ticked into the last 10 minutes, the visitors began to make errors again, twice losing the ball early in the count deep in their own half.
Fax got a break with a penalty and a chargedown decision that led to a drop out, but Thackeray’s drop goal attempt drifted wide.
Handforth and Watson both missed with similar shots, but Fax had an absolutely gilt-edged chance to win when they were awarded a penalty two minutes from time, straight in front, 30 metres out, only for Paterson to inexplicably put the ball wide.
That looked to be that, but Swinton could not clear their lines, paving the way for Ambler’s last-gasp intervention.