Widnes, looking for a second consecutive triumph and a third final win in four years, were heavy favourites to beat Batley Bulldogs, but the Yorkshire side upset the odds and claimed a dramatic, last minute victory.
The first domestic final of the season was played under heavy skies and rain made handling conditions difficult in contrast to the heat of last years final. Handling errors aplenty failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the Bulldogs as they won their first final since 1998’s Trans Pennine Cup came up against the Super League hopefuls.
A delighted Bulldog’s coach Karl Harrison said “It was an amazing effort. The game swung our way, their way, our way, their way and I thought they’d pinched it right at the death and then we came back with two quick-fire tries and then te last try by Brown was a fantastic effort. I’m really, really pleased.”
“Widnes are a good team, but we got out to a flying start but when you have players like Thackeray and Smith they were able to get it back to 12-12. We then edged the first half 15-12 but the second half could have gone either way. It was a great game of rugby league.
“Going into the last few minutes we messaged the guys that we needed some good field position and we needed to kick down there and when we hadn’t got the ball it was about keeping them down there. Tough one-on-one defence forced a few loose balls and in the end that’s what we worked for.”
A full blooded first half saw Batley race to a 12-0 advantage as the underdogs really took the game to Widnes. An early spate of penalties gave the Bulldogs a superb platformand not content to test the Widnes defence they breached it on their first major attack when Ash Lindsay peeled off the base of a scrum and Paul Handforth took on the line before an offload found former Salford junior Jason Walton and he crashed through to score. Gareth Moore, an influence throughout with his field kicking, added the conversion and the Bulldogs were on their way. Five minutes later the Bulldogs were pressing again and just before the heavens opened Kris Lythe fired a superb pass across the face of the posts and prop forward Sean Hesketh spun over for his 9th try of a prolific season.
Batley were dominating until an attack from Widnes pinned them back on their own line. Moore tried to steal the ball from Matt Gardner and thought he had succeeded only to see the referee award a penalty. From the quick tap Kirk Netherton found Ben Davies and the substitute twisted over. Eventual official man-of-the-match Anthony Thackeray levelled the game with an excellent try when he took Thomas Coyle‘s pass before dummying and scything through for Shane Grady to add his second goal.
The Vikings appeared to be on the charge but when Coyle missed a field goal attempt in the 33rd minute, but Batley went right down the other end of the ground where Moore saw his thirty metre field goal effort sail between the posts to put the Bulldogs in front. When the Vikings left hands in the tackle, Moore dispatched the ensuing penalty for two points and the Bulldogs deservedly led 15-12 at half-time. It could have been worse for Widnes too as Walton bounced off three tacklers to make the tryline only for the video referee to disallow the score for obstruction.
Early in the second half, Batley pressed with Handforth kicking over the top to put Widnes under pressure. The Bulldogs then saw a half break from Byron Smith come to nothing before numerous errors then kept the Yorkshire side pinned in their own half. Widnes could not take advantage straight away but when Smith lost possession in a crunching tackle, Gareth Haggerty fed the ball out to Paddy Flynn who was able to brush off the attentions of Mick Govin and Walton. Grady’s conversion edged Widnes in front and the noise reached new levels after 66 minutes when Kris Lythe was penalised for not playing the ball. Widnes drove to within ten metres of the try line before Thackeray cleverly switched play and Chris Gerard’s strength and determination saw him cross under the posts and the Vikings led 24-15.
It looked a comfortable lead heading into the final ten minutes but handling errors returned to plague Widnes and one such mistake twenty metres from their own line saw the impressive Johnny Campbell take play down the left and he put a bullet pass on to Alex Brown. The powerful winger blasted out of one tackle and evaded another as he swept round to improve the angle for Moore to convert and reduce the deficit to three points.
Inspired, Batley hit attacking mode and after Dave Tootill’s storming thrity metre break down the middle Shaun Ainscough risked everything to halt Brown. Grady then brought down Walton with a superb tackle and the game looked to be heading in the Vikings direction only for Flynn to lose the ball inside his own twenty. The Bulldogs and Moore grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and when the scrum-half’s delicate kick was plucked from the air by Brown and the Huddersfield dual contract winger etched his name in Batley history books with a powerful finish and his 2nd try of the game, awarded after a few seconds by video referee Richard Silverwood.
Defeated coach Paul Cullen was disappointed with his side but found time to sportingly acknowledge the Bulldogs. “First and foremost you’ve got to congratulate Batley. They were outstanding. We got into a good lead but they never gave up on it.”
On Brown’s second try Cullen noted, “a play like that deserves to win a final. It was an outstanding kick, an even better catch and it broke our hearts. We are devastated in the Widnes dressing room. We thoroughly deserved to lose that final. We got ourselves back in a position to win a final and then conspired to lose it. I thought our play one errors, loose one arm carries in tough conditions cost us the game combined with a weak kicking game off the back of it. That game went on one mistake either way and unfortunately we made one too many.”
Subs (all used)
Tries: Davies, Thackeray, Flynn, Gerard.
Goals: Grady 4/4.
Subs (all used)
33 Mick Govin
Tries: Walton (3), Hesketh (8), Brown (68, 78).
Goals: Moore 4/5
Drop goal: Moore (34)
Penalty count: 7-7
Referee: Robert Hicks