WEST Hartlepool’s promotion hopes are not over – but if they are going to do it, they must do it the hard way.
West kept hold of third place in North One East, despite seeing their 100 per-cent record at Brinkburn ended by champions-elect Cleckheaton.
Clecky celebrated at full-time as though they had won the title and the truth is they already have both feet in National Three North even if the sums do not yet make it a mathematical certainty.
A run of 18 victories from 19 starts means not even Usain Bolt could catch them.
Huddersfield YMCA are favourites to clinch the play-off position, with West the only realistic challengers eight points back.
It is not a mission impossible for West – YMCA have to visit Cleckheaton this Saturday, while Iain Dixon and Peter Robinson’s team still have to go to Laund Hill. But there is little room for manoeuvre.
West have four of their last seven games at home so they are not out of it.
They collected just one point on Saturday after taking a losing bonus against Cleckheaton, who became the first team this season to win at Catcote Road.
There was no lack of effort but they never truly threatened the runaway leaders who edged it 2-1 in tries.
In SportMail on Friday, coach Robinson referred to Cleckheaton as the most efficient team in the league. He was not wrong, these fellas are efficient with a capital E, even when down to 14 men you could not tell.
West were looking to repeat their famous 2003 win when the Tykes came town as the league pacesetters.
That day, Clecky helped West by having a player sent off half an hour from time.
And they did their best to assist the hosts on Saturday, this time playing the last 41 minutes with 14 men after a red card for skipper Richard Piper and the last five with only 13 following a sin-bin.
But West this time could not take advantage, landing just one late Stuart Waites penalty while the red and whites were shorthanded.
If you were ever in a side which went down to 14 men (and seven in the pack) then you would pick Clecky.
The forwards were a formidable unit, they were not troubled in the scrum and tortured West in the line-out.
It meant, despite having a man advantage for the second half and the strong wind at their backs, West never looked like scoring.
On the solitary occasion they threatened, they allowed the Tykes off the hook.
There were only two minutes of normal time left when Waites kicked long downfield to within five metres of the away line.
West had not put their jumpers in the air on the Cleckheaton throw, instead opting to try to counter the powerful driving maul of the visitors. Would they contest?
In the end, they did neither.
They gifted not only Cleckheaton the line-out, they were the pushed back 15 metres before conceding a penalty.
Coach Dixon, who takes West to Alnwick this weekend, held up his hands afterwards and said the defensive line-out policy was his “call”.
But sometimes, players have to show a bit of nous and make their own decisions on the field – perhaps thinking ‘hang on lads, these are down to only six me in their pack, let’s go for it’.
It meant the afternoon ended in frustration when at half-time there was still hope at only 17-7 down.
Dixon said: “Cleckheaton are a very good well-drilled side who know what they are doing in all areas of the pitch.
“They didn’t lose a line-out all day and caused us trouble in the scrums.
“All credit to Cleckheaton, they are a team who have been together around five years and we’re still a new side with an average age of may be only 23-24.
“Physically, they were that bit stronger than us, but our lads gave everything from the first to the last minute.”
West appeared to be heading for a long afternoon when they went 14-0 down in the first 11 minutes.
Clecky, as Dixon pointed out, possessed some strong boys.
And that was evident early doors. Their eighth-minute catch and drive did not directly bring a try but their strength opened up a gap which scrum-half Jack Bickerdike exploited from close range near the home line at the clubhouse end.
There looked little danger three minutes later when Martin Woodhead took an age to get hold of the ball wide on the left 20 metres out.
But the winger was too strong, shrugging off the defence to touch down next to the corner flag.
Ross Hayden converted superbly from the left touchline and when he added a 22nd-minute penalty to make it 17-0, it looked all over
But as they proved a fortnight earlier at Driffield this West side is made of sterner stuff and they had pulled a converted try back within two minutes.
West had pressured Clecky into conceding a five-metre scrum and the away set-piece was shunted backwards for Sam Miller to apply the touchdown, Waites converted into the wind.
They had two more good positions, only to give those away by conceding a free-kick and penalty but defensively they were resilient.
The game had featured a little bit of niggle in the first period which, to the referee’s credit, he tried to manage with a warning or two.
But when it boiled over into a punch up a minute from the break, Finlay Brown took decisive action, sin-binning props Adam Coates and Paul Turner and red-carding Clecky number eight Richard Piper.
At just 10 points down with a man more and the wind at their backs, you’d have fancied West.
But they could not build any pressure or continuity in a second half interrupted by scrum after scrum.
Clecky had the afternoon’s two outstanding runners, flanker Rob Peterson and centre Matt Piper, who more than made up for his brother’s indiscretion by making yard after yard with the ball.
They also had West’s number in the line-out. When the hosts finally reached the away 22 with 10 minutes left, Clecky stole the throw-in.
When they returned in the 76th minute, Waites kicked a penalty following the sin-binning of flanker Olly Akroyd, but West could not repeat their late smash and grab at Driffield.
West: Mallinson, Butcher, A Cheslin, Bailey, Youll, Waites, Painter, Pinchen, Rollins, Coates (Dixon 68), Bennett, Hogan, D Boatman (Turner 56), J Boatman, Miller.
Sub (not used): Tighe
Try: Miller 24. Con: Waites 24. Pen: Waites 77
Penalties awarded 10, kicked 1, missed 0; Line-outs won 3; Scrums won 13
Cleckheaton: Hayden, Marshall (White 71), Wilson, M Piper, Woodhead, Depledge, Bickerdike, Turner, Thrower, C Piper (A PIper 51), Piercy, Turton, Peterson, Akroyd, R Piper.
Tries: Bickerdike 8, Woodhead 11. Cons: Hayden 8, 11. Pen: Hayden 22
Penalties awarded 8, kicked 1, missed 0; Line-outs won 13; Scrums won 12 (one against head)
Referee: Finlay Brown (Northumberland)
Sin-bin: Coates and Turner 39, Akroyd 76. Sent-off: R Piper 39
l MORE rugby on Page 38