CLECKHEATON showed they have the heart of champions as they battled West Hartlepool to their first home defeat of the season, winning 17-10.
Down to 14 men for the whole of the second half and down to only 13 for the last 10 minutes, the Moorenders displayed immense character in the most difficult of circumstances to maintain their lead and come away with four league points.
The withdrawal of Alex Dawson two days before the game, and the very late unavailability of Michael Piper meant that coach Ian Armitage had to rearrange his side.
Josh White was brought on to the bench and Ollie Depledge – who had made his return to first team action only the week before after a season long injury absence – was handed the responsibility of playing stand-off.
There was a fierce Teeside wind at Brinkburn and after losing the toss, it was Cleckheaton who had the benefit of it in the first half, whilst having to battle against it in the second.
Cleckheaton kicked to get the game underway and West Hartlepool, familiar with the conditions, kept the ball in hand, driving slowly but surely into Cleckheaton’s defensive line.
The recycling of possession by the home side was commendable and the Moorenders were denied the ball for the opening five minutes.
When Cleckheaton did turn it over they made the most of possession, gaining a line out for the pack to set up a rolling maul. Richard Piper and James Wilson both went close before Jack Bickerdike sold a wonderful dummy and dived over the whitewash.
Ross Hayden added the conversion.
Cleckheaton extended their lead when good defence led to another line-out, and a solid lift gave Grant Turton a clean catch, and whilst Wests’ were expecting the drive, the ball was spread rapidly across the pitch giving Martin Woodhead the opportunity to power through another for a well taken try.
Hayden again added the extras and, minutes later, a penalty goal to propel Cleckheaton into a 17-0 lead.
A mix up from the restart led to the visitors grounding the ball in their own in-goal.
Wests capitalised from the five metre scrum with No.8, Sam Miller, pulling a try back for the home side and Stu Waites adding the conversion.
Tensions were beginning to bubble as half time approached and a minor altercation between Paul Turner and his opposite number turned into full blown fisticuffs at the next ruck.
Turner and Wests’ tight head, Adam Coates, were sent to the sin bin and Richard Piper, who the referee identified as also throwing a punch, was given a red card.
Cleckheaton turned to play into the wind at half time with a 17-7 lead, but had to play the remainder of the game a man down.
The impediment of the conditions meant Cleckheaton would not be able to kick their way out of trouble in the second half and the only way forward would be via gritted teeth and the ball up the jumper.
Ryan Piercy was manful in defence and Rob Afoa Peterson, switching to No.8 on Cleckheaton’s scrum, was magnificent with ball in hand and outstanding in repelling Wests’ attack.
Matty Piper found an extra gear from somewhere and time and again ran into the home side’s defensive wall like a battering ram, often partially breaking through to advance Cleck’s cause.
Fresh legs were applied when Andy Piper relieved brother Chris and Craig Blackburn came on to replace James Marshall.
This display of terrific determination from Cleckheaton kept Wests at bay until the 70th minute when a penalty, which was accompanied by a sin binning for Ollie Akroyd, brought the home side within seven points.
In previous years nagging doubts might have crept in to the Cleckheaton players’ minds, but the team showed all their title chasing credentials to keep Wests out whilst reduced to 13 men.
A loud cheer accompanied the final whistle as Cleckheaton now have one hand firmly on the North One East title.
They could clinch it before the end of February with a win in next weekend’s game at home to Huddersfield YMCA.