THE door to a fourth-placed finish in the Co-operative Championship seemingly slammed shut in Halifax’s faces yesterday after the narrowest of defeats in a pulsating contest at Mount Pleasant.
Both sides scored three tries, but in the end a missed conversion from Halifax stand off Danny Jones made the difference on the scoreboard as Karl Harrison’s Batley held on for victory against the team that most people seem to expect him to be coaching in 2012.
Fax certainly had their chances; teenage whizz kid Anthony Bowman and top-scoring winger Paul White both going close to snatching victory in the final seconds.
And they would have had at least a point if referee Jamie Leahy, who sent the blood pressure of the travelling support soaring with a string of contentious decisions in the closing stages, had not denied Fax hooker Sean Penkywicz a stonewall penalty four minutes from time.
But, as caretaker coach Damian Ball observed afterwards, this was largely a tale of missed opportunity.
At crucial times, the visitors made too many mistakes, conceded too many avoidable penalties and did not take enough of the chances they created against a genuinely resilient Batley side.
If the execution was a little awry though, Ball was rightly encouraged by his side’s approach, which looked much closer to the steely toughness brought to the club by Brian Noble in May and June than the entertaining chaos that characterised the recent wins over York and Toulouse.
Victory may have proved elusive, but as an indicator of play off potential this actually promised more than either of those successes.
Halifax made the best and worst of starts: Batley’s Johnny Campbell dropping the kick off to gift them a perfect attacking position, but they failed to capitalise and promptly fell behind to a second-minute Dane Manning try.
Kris Lythe’s inside ball looked routine, but the rangy second rower stormed through to touchdown.
Handforth kicked the goal, and it took Fax until the 10th minute to make a real impression going forward, some slick right to left passing putting Dylan Nash in space, but he could not find White on his outside.
The visitors kept the pressure on though, and it told four minutes later, Bowman slipping a neat pass for Paul Smith to touch down unchallenged by the posts.
Jones levelled at 6-6 with the conversion, and Fax should have doubled their lead immediately, Jones and Bob Beswick sending Greenwood away, but the full back seemed caught in two minds and unsuccessfully went for glory rather than pass to the supporting Smith.
Greenwood was stretchered off soon afterwards with with what looked worryingly like a neck injury, prompting a near 10 minute delay in proceedings and pushing Jones back into the full back role.
The rest of the half was nip and tuck, but if there was a tipping point it arrived just before half time.
Fax were attacking when Jones’ long ball to Rob Worrincy was knocked on by the winger close to the line, allowing Batley’s Alex Bretherton to gather and race up the sideline.
The back rower had made 10 metres – and surely taken any advantage - by the time Jones and Worrincy combined to hammer him into touch, but Leahy pulled play back and gave the Bulldogs the scrum.
As a result, Fax found themselves defending rather than attacking, and although they survived a torried spell of point-blank pressure, Nash’s hugely optimistic second tackle offload – in a gang tackle on his own 20 metre line with precious hope of significant reward – gave Batley one last chance before the hooter.
They took it: Handforth floating the kick to the corner on the final play of the half for Johnny Campbell to score.
Handforth kicked the goal and, with the slope to assist them in the second period, it was advantage Batley.
That impression was born out in the opening minutes after the restart, and when Smith was sin-binned eight minutes in – bizarrely after Nash had conceded a ridiculous penalty – the Bulldogs struck again, the superb Manning storming over from Handforth’s pass and the stand off kicking his side 18-6 up.
Leahy’s eccentricities continued, giving the try but then sin-binning Batley’s hooker George Flanagan for an incident in back play during the build up, but Fax – encouragingly – were inspired rather than deflated by their misfortune.
They cut the deficit to six points when Jones, who looked accomplished in his new role at the back, crossed from a Bowman pass and kicked the conversion with 25 minutes remaining.
And although both sides had chances immediately after that – White going close in the corner for the visitors, and Jones hauling down Batley full back Ian Preece - the game was well into the final quarter by the time Fax levelled at three tries each.
Stephen Bannister and Nash did the initial damage with a long range raid down the left flank, and when the ball was fired back across to the right, Jones produced a spectacular and speculative pass back over his head to send Joe Chandler charging through the cover to score.
Jones skewed his kick narrowly wide, but at 18-16 Fax were certainly back in the contest.
They put themselves under pressure from the kick off, the otherwise brilliant Jim Gannon and Bannister combining to concede a penalty for obstruction, and although they resisted the subsequent period of Batley pressure, it was an error that robbed them of momentum at a crucial stage.
When they did make it back into the home side’s danger zone, they should have had the chance to tie the scores with an easy penalty after Penkywicz was hauled down by a Batley player behind the play the ball.
Leahy waved those claims away, and Batley thought they had sealed it when Wayne Reittie claimed a Handforth cross kick.
Leahy was set to award the try but ruled it out for offside on the advice of his touch judge, giving Fax one last attacking chance.
They went within inches – literally – of taking advantage, the increasingly influential Bowman being hauled down virtually on the whitewash and then, finally, White fumbling a sharp chance from Penkywicz on the final play of the match.