Rugby League: Flustered Eagles spiked by Tuilagi

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The Independent Online
Sheffield Eagles 22

Halifax 28

THE prospect of Sheffield making the all-important top five at the end of the season is becoming a distant one, even to the most eagle- eyed observer.

Despite another grandstand finish, the Challenge Cup winners slipped further off the Super League pace yesterday as Halifax consolidated their own position in the play-off zone, with the power of their Western Samoan winger, Fereti Tuilagi, an important factor.

Halifax have severed most of their Polynesian connections but Tuilagi, playing with a remarkable porcupine hairdo, was always a handful, scoring a try in each half and inflicting further damage with his tackling.

The try-scoring opportunities in the first half came in matching pairs, with Halifax proving marginally the more adept at taking theirs.

The early balance of power was determined by two thrusts for the left corner - one denied, one successful. Sheffield failed to turn their bright start into points when Keith Senior stepped into touch on the way to the try line, but two minutes later Tuilagi's strength took him over for Halifax when he had no more space in which to work.

The converted try that cancelled out that score came when Marcus Vassilakopoulos' kick was lost by the Halifax defence and Neil Law, with his first touch in Super League, picked up the pieces. Like a mirror image, Sheffield then made an equal mess of Gavin Clinch's bomb, Waisale Sovatabua only knocking it down neatly for Paul Rowley to touch down.

The next theme was that of tries scored thanks to poor tackling. Nick Pinkney was first for the Eagles, running across the field on his way to nowhere in particular until he spotted a gap, straightened up and left Halifax flat-footed.

But after Dale Laughton, a transfer target for Wigan, had lost the ball in the tackle for the second time in the match, Halifax came away from the scrum to claim an equally soft try, Chris Chester's pass sending Martin Pearson in unopposed and Pearson adding his third goal for an eight-point half-time lead.

Whetu Taewa had a chance to bring Sheffield straight back into it but lost the ball going over the line. There was no such charity at the other end from Tuilagi who looked a certain scorer as soon as he took Damien Gibson's pass, after Sheffield again knocked on and again failed to defend from the scrum.

A penalty from Jamie Bloem, kicking in place of the injured Pearson, edged Halifax further in front. Sheffield hinted at a fight-back when Senior, switched into the pack, came steaming on to an inside ball from Dave Watson to score under the posts and give Vassilakopoulos an easy kick.

But Halifax put it virtually beyond doubt when, shortly after another scrum, Sheffield were again caught cold, slick service from Rowley and Chester producing a try for David Bouveng.

Darren Turner scrambled over for the Eagles with four minutes left, but the fleeting glimpse of an equalising try disappeared when Sovatabua lost the ball near the line.

"Our season is slipping away," said the Sheffield coach, John Kear. "Some players have retired mentally. They won at Wembley and think the season's done with.

"On Monday morning, there's going to be some hard talking and we will have to look at the make-up of the side."

Halifax, on the other hand, will have to be taken increasingly seriously. Even with key forwards such as Kelvin Skerrett and Martin Moana missing, they looked exactly what they have become - a hard team to beat.

Sheffield: Sovatabua; Pinkney, Taewa, Senior, Law, Watson, Vassilakopoulos, Broadbent, Lawless, Laughton, Turner, Shaw, Wood. Substitutes: Morganson, Stephens, Molloy, Jackson.

Halifax: Pearson; Powell, Gibson, Bouveng, Tuilagi, Chester, Clinch, Harrison, Rowley, Marshall, Gillespie, Clark, Mercer. Substitutes: Bloem, Baldwin, Fearon, Hobson.

Referee: S Ganson (St Helens).