Play-off agony for Halifax

Sam Wheeler at Ovenden Park Halifax 16 Launceston 18

Halifax take no reward from a season of almost unadulterated success after producing an unaccountably limp performance on the only occasion when victory was paramount.

They won 25 of their 26 fixtures in National Three North, and were so far ahead of the pack that they could have lost nine more matches and still finished second, but they were pipped for the lone automatic promotion place on points difference by Waterloo and then lost to Launceston in Saturday's play-off.

Coach Kevin McCallion had presided over three promotions in four seasons and is accustomed to seeing his side peak for the most important matches.

"We just never turned up," he said. "We have played so well and so consistently all season. That was not the Halifax I know. We have beaten better teams than that convincingly. It is a major setback to this club."

There is little doubt that Halifax would have prospered in English rugby's third tier. Now, instead of being pitted against ailing, impecunious senior clubs such as Wakefield and Harrogate, they will be vying with wealthy, resurgent Bradford and Bingley.

It could become even worse: if Harrogate and Wharfedale find support for their motion to the Rugby Football Union, there will not be any play-offs. Halifax may have to win 26 out of 26 to go up.

On Saturday, they had the edge up front but could not make use of it. Let down by endless handling errors, they lacked momentum. There was little fluency in midfield, where centres Jamie Bloem and Craig Emmerson did not look like players with Super League and Premiership pedigree respectively.

Of their overseas stars, No 8 Rob Afoa-Petersen was clearly hampered by injury and Doug Sanft had a day to forget, missing five out of six attempts at goal. Three of those were from a long way out but the fifth was half-way to the left-hand touchline and would have levelled the scores in stoppage time after Halifax had finally found some spark and pulled back a try through prop Adam Blades.

He sent his effort wide and Launceston survived a barrage of pressure to secure a deserved victory.

The Cornishmen, who were well supported in a sizeable crowd, led 6-3 after a cagey first half. Apart from their late rally, Halifax only really threatened when visiting prop Ian Langbridge was in the sin-bin. In that period, they scored eight points, with Sanft dropping a goal and then stretching over the line to complete a move that he had started.

Launceston, who had had two earlier tries disallowed, surprised their hosts with two long-range tries in seven minutes, both scored by full-back Andy Birkett. Fly-half Simon Porter converted the first from the touchline but then missed an easier kick to leave the home side hope at 18-13 with 15 minutes left.

Despite the inspirational efforts of captain Carl Mortimer and lock David Jessiman, and the subtle probings of scrum-half Joe Bartlett, there was no way back.

"We know the rules, so we don't deserve to go up," said McCallion. "But I think we are a lot better than some of the teams in the league above us.

"We will be able to keep this team together. They have been magnificent all season but they owe something to this club and this town."

Halifax: A Canning; D Solomi, C Emmerson, J Bloem, N Cooper; D Sanft, J Bartlett; A Blades, C Mortimer (capt), R Szabo (R Thomas 80); R Hill, M Smith (S Dykes 67); D Jessiman, G Lewis (A Ledger 67), R Afoa-Petersen.

Launceston: A Birkett; A Rescoria, D Morris, E Nancekivell (capt), R Gosling (J Bolt 80); S Porter, J Hill (S Morrell 67); M Rice, D Risdon, I Langbridge; J Griffiths, J Wilce; N Keane (J Bolt 48-57), S Dyer, W Sprangle.

Referee: A Biggs (RFU).