Top class sport can be extremely cruel at times and on Friday night (12 June 2015) the Hunslet Hawks witnessed that first hand as they lost in heartbreaking fashion to Halifax at the South Leeds Stadium. After a display full of heart, endeavour and skill, they succumbed to a late try by Ben Johnston to fall to a 14-8 defeat.
Before the kick-off there was little in the way of optimism amongst the home support. Last weekend’s defeat at Whitehaven had seen the Hawks dragged into the battle at the foot of the table and with 4 consecutive games to come against sides looking to get out of the Kingstone Press Championship from the opposite end of the table, prospects of a win against Halifax seemed slim.
With injuries decimating the squad, Barry Eaton had little room for manoeuvre in his team selection. Michael Haley returned to the side at prop, in place of Brad Brennan, but it was the introduction of Jordan Lilley, the latest dual registration recruit from the Leeds Rhinos, which would prove to be the one which would inspire the Hawks on the night.
Right from the opening kick off there was a good intensity to Hunslet’s play. Halifax, who entered the game just outside the top four, were unable to get out of their own half in the opening ten minutes as a combination of strong defence and some astute kicking forced the visitors to play the game in their own territory.
In fact it would be almost 15 minutes before the Hawks had their first scare as Tom Saxton made a break down the left hand side, only to be hauled back by a splendid tackle by Liam Mackay. However Halifax were now on the front foot and when the Hawks conceded a penalty for trying to steal the ball in the tackle, the visitors looked set to pounce.
It was Hunslet though that opened the scoring seconds later. As ‘Fax looked to open up the defence on the flanks, a pass from full back James Saltonstall was picked off by Richie Barnett and the winger, who had made a crucial mistake last week redeemed himself by racing 90 metres with the interception to touch down. Lilley added the conversion to give the Hawks a lead their early pressure had deserved.
The score certainly woke Halifax up and they began to run with much more purpose. The Hawks were a little fortunate that the referee gave a forward pass which denied Mitch Cahalane a clear run to the line on 22 minutes, and from that let-off Hunslet regained their momentum. Lilley was proving to be a marvel both with ball in hand and with the boot, adding some much needed craft to Hunslet’s attacking play.
The intensity of the Hunslet defence seemed to unsettle Halifax. When half breaks were made, scrambling defence denied them and as they looked to to get to the fringes to make attacks, they made error after error which halted their momentum and handed the ball back to the home side.
The half time hooter brought some relief to the crowd, but that was tempered with the knowledge that over the last four games the second halves have been absolute horror shows for Hunslet.
Those fears were instantly realised as Halifax scored inside two minutes, Dane Manning barreling over in the corner. Steve Tyrer’s conversion cancelled out all the Hawks hard work of the first half and levelled the scores at 6-6
However Halifax were penalised for crossing straight from the kick off and the Hawks decided to have a shot at goal, Lilley popping over the kick to put Hunslet back in front at 8-6.
The match then became an incredibly tense affair. Both sides could make little impression in attack, but it was the Hawks who had the better of the territory, making more yards with the ball and then Lilley and Kain kicking superbly to force Halifax to start any attacking play from deep in their own half.
As the clock ticked down belief began to grow that a win was very much on the cards and the Hawks looked for the killer score. Jack Lee was held up just short of the line with 10 minutes to go, and Halifax became frustrated as their kicking game could not relieve any pressure, Jimmy Watson time and time again placed to collect the ball.
The pivotal point in the game came with five minutes remaining. Andy Kain, who looked like a different player alongside Lilley, made a break and was tackled 20 metres from the line by Gareth Potts. The Halifax winger held him down long enough for his defence to get back, but too long for the referee’s liking. Hunslet earned a penalty and Potts was sent to the sin bin for the final moments of the game.
With just 12 men on the field, and in the excitement of the game, Hunslet instead of taking the two points on offer decided to go for the killer blow and ran the penalty. Lilley was held up just short of the line though and possession reverted to Halifax. In the ensuing set of six, Tyrer broke through the Hunslet defensive line and had Johnston on his shoulder backing up to score under the posts and break Hunslet hearts. Tyrer converted and Halifax led 12-8 with just three minutes remaining.
With Hunslet desperate to make something happen, Rob Mulhern was penalised a minute later for interference and Tyrer tacked on two insurance points. The Hawks did have one final chance, but Richie Barnett’s grubber kick through was collected by the Halifax defence as the hooter sounded.
Despite the defeat, there were plenty of positives for the Hawks to take from the game. This season was always about staying out of the bottom two of the Championship table and if they can produce performances like that against the teams in and around them, then that should prove to be a target well within their grasp.