Once again, the Bulldogs have progressed in the Championship play-offs thanks to a dramatic golden-point victory over Featherstone Rovers at the BigFellas Stadium. George Flanagan landed an 87th minute drop-goal to set up a Grand Final with the Sheffield Eagles at the LSV next Sunday.
FEATHERSTONE ROVERS 20-21 BATLEY BULLDOGS
by Mark Ward
Kingstone Press Championship Play-off, BigFellas Stadium, 22 September 2013
Not for the first time in their long and, at times, illustrious history, the Bulldogs upset the odds to record a nerve-shredding but ultimately deserved victory at the home of the Championship League Leaders. Trailing 20-6 with just 16 minutes remaining, John Kear and his charges looked dead and buried before staging an amazing comeback that forced a 20-20 scoreline at full-time, which was then added to by a second consecutive golden-point success in extra-time.
The result was heartbreaking for the hosts who had dominated the first-half, constantly testing the Bulldogs' back three by peppering them with high kicks which were unnerving enough to result in two tries. However, an obviously inspired half-time pep-talk by Kear had the desired effect as the visitors gradually established a foothold on the game, finishing much the stronger side, and their momentum clearly carried them through to a dramatic win which resulted in wild scenes.
In truth, there was little indication of the excitement to come in the early stages of the game, as the hosts set about trying to sew up victory from the start with the Bulldogs unable to make any real impression in the first half. Featherstone utilised the kicking of Liam Finn to unsettle the Batley back line and it paid dividends, setting the platform for the hosts to pick up possession on 4 minutes. With the Bulldogs defence stretched out wide, Greg Worthington managed to squeeze in at the corner to open the scoring, but the conversion out wide was too difficult for Finn. Things worsened for the visitors on the quarter-hour - Miles Greenwood failed to deal with a bomb and from the resultant set Ian Hardman went over to extend Rovers' advantage. This time Finn added the extras to push the hosts into a 10-0 advantage.
The Bulldogs continued to be their own worst enemies; on 28 minutes Liam Walmsley stripped the ball illegally to give Rovers a piggy-back down the field, and with the visitors once again stretched out wide, Hardman went in for his second try of the afternoon, converted by Finn to make it 16-0. Batley's misery was compounded two minutes later when a stricken Jacob Fairbank was escorted from the field with a dislocated shoulder, further limiting the Bulldogs' options from the bench. Five minutes from the break, Sam Barlow was aggressively converged on by his markers and referee Leatherbarrow awarded a penalty which Finn duly despatched to create a seemingly unassailable 18-0 lead.
As the interval approached, the Bulldogs almost suffered altitude sickness by getting up the field and on the back of sustained pressure, Alex Rowe crashed through the Featherstone defensively line on the last play of the half to crucially reduce the arrears to 18-6 following Gareth Moore's simple conversion.
HALF-TIME: FEATHERSTONE ROVERS 18-6 BATLEY BULLDOGS
If the Bulldogs' performance in the first-half had been nervy and error-ridden, their showing after the break was a whole different kettle of fish. The visitors stifled Rovers with some fierce tackling and strong running and they gradually started to build considerable momentum by imposing themselves on the game. They served early warning of their intentions on 46 minutes when Greg Johnson touched down at the corner, only to be pulled back for a forward pass but it was once again Rovers who opened the second-half scoring when Finn slotted over a penalty after interference at the play-the-ball to make it 20-6.
As the game edged towards the final quarter of an hour, even the most optimistic of Bulldogs fans were surely expecting defeat, despite their vast possession superiority, but it all changed on 64 minutes. Byron Smith careered towards the corner before twisting in the tackle and holding the ball long enough to release to Gareth Potts who downed in the corner to give the visiting fans hope. Moore's dependable boot added the extras to bring the score to 20-12. Surely the comeback wasn't on? With 8 minutes remaining, we realised it most certainly was as the ball passed swiftly through the hands of Alex Bretherton and John Davies allowing Johnson the opportunity to go in at the corner, legitimately this time. Gareth Moore converted to pull the score back to 20-18 and the stadium collectively held its breath ...
The momentum was all with Batley by now and on 76 minutes when Paul Mennell was felled by a high shot just inside the Featherstone half, the drama intensified. The Bulldogs bench signalled for Gareth Moore to go for goal, and the scrum-half kept his nerve to send the kick straight through the middle of the posts to level the scores at 20-20. The visitors almost snatched victory with two minutes to go when Ben Black wriggled clear but the supporting Walmsley was hauled down just short of the line on the last tackle. The hooter sounded and Batley were once again locked into a sudden-death extra-time battle.
FULL-TIME: FEATHERSTONE ROVERS 20-20 BATLEY BULLDOGS
Into extra-time, Featherstone were in position for the first drop-goal attempt on 82 minutes, but Finn's effort was charged down. When the otherwise excellent Alex Rowe knocked on in centre-field a minute later, it looked likely Rovers would seal victory but Finn pushed his next effort wide under heavy pressure. Black then tried a field-goal on 86 minutes, but his effort was charged down then recovered. Alex Bretherton drove towards the sticks and with the hosts expecting the ball to go to Black, George Flanagan slotted over from dummy-half in a clearly rehearsed move to send the visiting supporters wild and break the league leaders' hearts.
The Bulldogs stand 80 minutes from the Championship, with old nemesis Sheffield Eagles standing in the way. It was third time lucky against Featherstone today, and do not bet against a similar outcome next week as John Kear and his charges look to erase the double defeat they have suffered against the Eagles this season.
FEATHERSTONE ROVERS: 1 Hardman, 26 Sharp, 28 Mellars, 4 Worthington, 2 Saxton, 6 Kain, 7 Finn, 10 Crossley, 22 Bussey, 16 James, 11 Dale, 17 Lockwood, 9 Kaye. Interchange: 14 Ellis, 15 Bryan, 18 Hepworth, 27 Barlow.
T: Worthington, Hardman 2
G: Finn 4
BATLEY BULLDOGS: 1 Greenwood, 2 Potts, 3 Walton, 11 Bretherton, 21 Johnson, 6 Black, 7 Moore, 8 Smith, 9 Mennell, 27 Mullally, 30 Fairbank, 16 Davies, 13 Lindsay. Interchange: 14 Flanagan, 15 Hirst, 17 Walmsley, 19 Rowe.
T: Rowe, Potts, Johnson
G: Moore 4
SCORING SEQUENCE: 4-0, 10-0, 16-0, 18-0, 18-6, HT, 20-6, 20-12, 20-18, 20-20, FT, 20-21
REFEREE: C Leatherbarrow
MAN OF THE MATCH: Alex Rowe (Batley Bulldogs) - outstanding yards from the big man and how he will be looking forward to facing his old club next Sunday!