HALIFAX’S lead at the top of the Co-operative Championship is down to a single point after a moment of madness from their former Batley winger Wayne Reittie undermined their chances of victory in a pulsating first-against-second showdown at Mount Pleasant.
Reittie, one of five players who followed coach Karl Harrison to the Shay from Batley last autumn, was red carded midway through the second half after blatantly head-butting his former teammate Gareth Moore in full view of a touch judge.
At that stage, Fax led 16-14 having trailed 12-6 after a stop-start first half during which both sides made more mistakes than they would have liked.
With the old ground’s famous slope in favour of the visitors, tries from Lee Paterson and Dane Manning had finally given Harrison’s side a semblance of hard-earned control against a predictably charged-up Bulldogs line up.
Whether Reittie’s temper definitively cost Fax the win will never be known, but it did change the momentum of this game in an instant; Batley gained fresh impetus, Fax lost their way.
John Kear’s side drew level with a Moore penalty before the scrum half kicked the winning drop goal four minutes from the end.
A late, late try by Ben Black, the hero of Fax’s 2009 Grand Final win and a player unwanted by Harrison, was poetic, but only confirmed the already inevitable.
Earlier, Reittie had made the first mistake of the afternoon, losing the ball in heavy traffic on the Fax left.
The visitors responded well, with an error from the former Fax loanee Moore getting them off the hook.
Fax were working their way up the slope easily enough, but two more mistakes – from Rob Worrincy and Ryan Fieldhouse – gave the home side help they hardly needed.
Black’s kick was taken superbly by Fieldhouse, but at the expense of a drop out, and Batley looked dangerous until Black dropped the ball in front of the posts on the last tackle.
A great kick from Paul Handforth, stopping the ball inches shy of the dead-ball line, forced Fax’s first drop out of the game 13 minutes in, but another fumble, this time from the otherwise excellent Ross Divorty, let Batley off the hook.
Fortunately, the Bulldogs were just as culpable, and the next chance Fax got, they made it count: Adam Robinson driving deep into the Bulldogs’ left side defence and Penkywicz exploding out from the play the ball to cross from 10 metres out.
Paterson converted from the sideline for a 6-0 lead, but a Black 40/20 got Batley back on the front foot and this time Fax could not hold their line, Alex Bretherton ploughing over and Moore converting for 6-6 with 24 minutes on the clock.
The errors were mounting for both sides, but Fax almost paid dearly for a Callum Casey fumble – on at centre in place of the injured Steve Tyrer - with only remarkable defence holding Black, Alex Walmsley and Keegan Hirst up over the line on successive tackles.
Batley were clearly gaining some gravity-assisted momentum though, and Black’s inside pass sent the giant figure of Walmsley striding over on the left, Moore again on target to give his side a 12-6 lead.
Casey atoned for his earlier error with a one-on-one steal on Alex Brown to give Fax a rare attacking foothold as half time approached, but again the ball ended up on the floor at a crucial point in the game.
That was that for the first half action; leaving Fax trailing by six with the downhill run to come.
It was Batley who started the second period better; Jason Walton rampaging up the hill.
But an intercept from Anthony Thackeray, who raced 60 metres before being chased down, paved the way for Fax to move the ball right where Handforth put Paterson over by the flag with 44 minutes on the clock.
The centre could not convert, and another dropped ball – Sam Barlow losing Penkywicz’s pass on half way – released the pressure on Batley, a mistake which almost proved costly when Moore skipped through, Fieldhouse coming up with a crucial tackle.
Fax conceded a penalty soon after, Walton again proving too hot to handle, and Moore kicked Batley 14-10 up.
The visitors almost scored when Handforth’s kick bounced into Thackeray’s arms, but the half back was held up short.
Fax’s third try wasn’t long in coming, the visitors finally gaining a foothold in the Batley 20 metre area and Handforth sending Manning twisting over.
Paterson kicked the goal off the touchline to put Fax 16-14 ahead with 23 minutes remaining.
What happened next was inexplicable; Reittie losing his cool completely and headbutting Moore flush on the forehead in a three-man tackle.
The red card was inevitable, leaving Fax to play out the final 19 minutes with just 12 men, their misfortune compounded with the loss of Divorty a couple of minutes later with a leg injury.
Batley surged forward, with only a desperate chase from Worrincy on Brown and a brave defensive read from Thackeray preventing a try.
Fax got a penalty of their own with 10 minutes to go, but Paterson’s kick, from midway between posts and flag, drifted wide.
The visitors were almost over when Barlow broke the line and Handforth’s pass left Penkywicz inches short, but again the Batley defence held firm.
The momentum of the game had changed completely though, and Moore, recognising his opportunity, put them ahead once more with a 30-metre drop goal.
That sparked a frantic last few minutes; Craig Ashall’s raw aggression kicking off another melee which saw Barlow and Batley centre Danny Maun dispatched to the sin bin, ensuring the visitors would finish with 11 men.
All that remained was for Black – who else? - to put on a trademark sidestep and clinch the game for the home side.