KINGSTONE PRESS CHAMPIONSHIP GRAND FINAL
SHEFFIELD EAGLES 19 BATLEY BULLDOGS 12
Aaron Bower, Leigh Sports Village, Sunday 29th Sept 2013
Sheffield created history by becoming the first side to retain the Championship title, coming from behind to triumph in an ultimate game of two halves.
Despite leading 12-0 at the break, Batley’s hearts were broken in their maiden Grand Final experience, as Sheffield staged a remarkable comeback to win a second consecutive decider. Second-half scores from the prolific pairing of Quentin Laulu-Togagae and Menzie Yere, coupled with a double from Scott Turner sealed a dramatic turnaround in a superb game, and ensure it was Sheffield’s name that will be on the Championship trophy again.
The first half was all Batley, as they put on arguably their best 40-minute performance of the season to deservedly lead at the break, thanks mainly to a kicking masterclass from Gareth Moore.
The opening stages carried all the ferocity and tension you would expect from a Grand Final, with both sides delivering some fierce defence to deny any real openings from either team. The tightness of the game was reflected by the fact Batley opted to kick for goal from all four of their first-half penalties rather than chance their arm. Moore missed his first attempt, but nailed the second, shortly after Ben Black had forced Tom Armstrong to concede a goal-line drop-out, to nudge Batley in front.
Batley were starting to get into a real groove as the nerves seemed to settle, and they grabbed the first try of the afternoon to take early control. From nowhere, Jason Walton’s superb pass freed Johnny Campbell, and he raced away, beating the covering Laulu-Togagae with a change of pace, to make it 6-0. Moore added a great touchline conversion, and Batley were eight points to the good.
The Eagles looked to gain their composure after that shaky start, but they couldn’t breach a stern and resolute Batley side. The Bulldogs were again awarded an easy penalty, for interference by Mitchell Stringer on Keegan Hirst and, with just over ten minutes to the break, Moore again stepped up to nail the penalty and put the Bulldogs 10-0 in front.
Batley’s fourth penalty of the afternoon – again for interference by the struggling Eagles – continued the theme of the first half. Moore again duly obliged with the boot to nail his fourth goal of the afternoon and see Batley’s lead stretch out to 12.
Slowly but surely, Batley were compiling a challenging lead. That was how it remained at the break as a near-perfect half of rugby from the Bulldogs saw them just 40 minutes away from glory.
With only one try in the first half, chances were naturally at a premium as the game rolled into the second period. Some smart handling from Campbell and Black set the latter free, but he was denied by some great last-ditch defending from Laulu-Togagae.
The Eagles needed a huge moment to haul themselves back into a game that was spiralling away from them, and it duly came from the boot of Dominic Brambani on 55 minutes.
After kicking two 40/20s last week at Halifax, he nailed another to give Sheffield position to strike. And it took just two plays for them to breach the Batley line for the first-time as QLT sent Scott Turner over after some smart play from dummy-half to make it 12-4. Crucially though, as it looked at the time, Brambani missed the conversion.
But the try marked an amazing and complete turnaround. All the momentum was now with the defending champions as they rallied to overturn the deficit. The pressure was on Batley to stand firm and, after Campbell spilled a seemingly unthreatening kick from Pat Walker, it gave the Eagles the opportunity to go over again. After Andrew Henderson was held up, Brambani’s cross-field kick was clever, the ball was worked outside and Menzie Yere crashed his way over for his 46th try of the season. Again though, Brambani pulled the conversion wide. Despite leading by two tries to one, the Eagles still trailed by four points.
However, Sheffield were now sensing blood, and after Michael Knowles came agonisingly close to grounding the ball, the Eagles didn’t need a second invitation in the following set. After seeing a gap out wide, Pat Walker’s kick was inch-perfect, and Turner flew onto the ball and caught it cleanly at speed for his second to level it up. Brambani once again though, pushed the kick wide.
Batley’s discipline had fallen apart as the second half wore on, and gave up possession whenever they got god field position. And they were punished ruthlessly again after conceding their sixth penalty of the afternoon. After Stringer had the vision to offload in the tackle, Laulu-Togagae was on hand to finish with real style, rounding Miles Greenwood at pace to put Sheffield in front. From in front of the sticks, Brambani nailed his first conversion and, after back-to-back tries, Sheffield led by six with less than ten minutes left.
That lead was crucially nudged out to seven with just minutes remaining. With Sheffield again in possession, the ball was turned back to the excellent Walker, who coolly nailed the field goal to all but secure victory.
There was to be no fairytale ending to the season for John Kear after two dramatic victories in the previous rounds, Misi Taulapapa putting Paul Mennell’s grubber dead in the 78th minute and Brambani missing a 40-metre penalty shot in the last minute.
But Kear expressed his pride at what his side achieved, despite falling just short.
“It’s been tough getting here, having to go to Leigh and Featherstone; and I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved this season,” he said. “We shouldn’t let the disappointment of today sour what has been a very good season for Batley.
“I think we’ve been really good for the play-offs all the way through. We played 40 minutes of perfect cup-final football, and we just went away from everything we did right in that second half.
“For 40 minutes we more than did ourselves justice, and it’s just a shame that in the second half we didn’t play as well as we have done throughout the play-off series.”
GAMESTAR: Pat Walker had a hand in nearly everything Sheffield did during that amazing second-half comeback.
GAMEBREAKER: Sheffield were struggling until Dominic Brambani came up with a magnificent 40/20 from nowhere; that changed the game’s momentum dramatically.
1 Quentin Laulu-Togagae
5 Misi Taulapapa
4 Tom Armstrong
3 Menzie Yere
2 Scott Turner
6 Pat Walker
7 Dominic Brambani
25 Eddie Battye
9 Andrew Henderson
10 Mitch Stringer
11 Michael Knowles
15 Alex Szostak
13 Joe Hirst
Subs (all used)
14 James Davey
12 Peter Green
16 Duane Straugheir
21 Matt Garside
Tries: Turner (56, 67), Yere (61), Laulu-Togagae (70)
Goals: Brambani 1/5
Field goal: Walker (74)
1 Miles Greenwood
5 Johnny Campbell
3 Jason Walton
4 Danny Maun
21 Greg Johnson
6 Ben Black
7 Gareth Moore
8 Byron Smith
9 Paul Mennell
28 Anthony Mullally
11 Alex Bretherton
16 John Davies
13 Ash Lindsay
Subs (all used)
14 George Flanagan
15 Keegan Hirst
19 Alex Rowe
17 Liam Walmsley
Try: Campbell (13)
Goals: Moore 4/5
Rugby Leaguer & League Express Men of the Match
Eagles: Dominic Brambani
Bulldogs: Keegan Hirst
Penalty count: 7-6
Referee: Matt Thomason
SCORING SEQUENCE: 0-2, 0-8, 0-10, 0-12, 4-12, 8-12, 12-12, 18-12, 19-12