CRESTFALLEN head coach James Ford slated the “horrible” rugby league rule that ultimately ended York City Knights’ season after an epic – and heart-breaking - Kingstone Press League One play-off.

The Knights and home team Whitehaven broke what is thought to be the world record for the longest-ever competitive professional rugby league match as their semi-final reached the 126th minute before Ste Roper’s field goal finally won it for the hosts, 21-20.

It had ended 20-20 after 80 minutes and the teams were still locked together after two 10-minute halves of golden-point extra time in the rain and mud.

The teams simply played on until someone scored – and Haven finally did do after being handed a fortunate scrum in the red zone due to a little-known rule whereby if the ball hits the referee, the attacking team get the put-in.

“The ball – the drop-goal attempt - has hit the ref. It’s the rule – the attacking team get a scrum,” said Ford, after Paul Crook’s initial attempt was so off-target it struck John McMullen before trickling dead. Roper scored the winner from that platform.

“It’s a horrible rule. The boys have played for nearly 106 minutes and the game is decided by that.

“There was nothing between the teams. Congratulations to Whitehaven – I hope they have a good go in the final. They’ve been better than us over the season and finished higher than us.

“But my focus is on my players and their effort all season and in this match – and their effort is decided on that.”

The Knights had come within inches of winning the tie in normal time, too, after Ash Robson’s equalising try with 10 minutes left. Connor Robinson’s conversion attempt seemed to drift over an upright but, while the half-back thought it was good, the officials deemed it had missed.

Said Ford: “Connor thought it was over. It was certainly close. But the touch judges are paid to make that call and I don’t think they’d get it wrong on purpose.

“It was going to be a tough day for the officials and calls would be crucial. I wouldn’t fancy their job. They did their best and there’s no blame from me attached to any of them for the result.

“However, the game as a whole could have a look at that rule.”

Ford otherwise had only pride in his troops’ efforts. They outscored the hosts in tries, four to three, but Robinson missed two conversions and a penalty whereas Crook booted three conversions out of three plus a free-kick.

Ford said: “It was an outstanding effort by both teams in tough conditions at the end of a long season.

“It was worthy of any final, nearly 26 minutes of overtime, nearly 106 minutes in all, with both teams going at it.

“Both had chances to win it but either both weren’t quite good enough with their execution in the conditions - or both defences were that desperate to hold them out.

“There’s no blame attached to Connor at all (for the missed goals). It’s a team game and he did some good things in difficult conditions underfoot to kick – as we saw with the drop-goal attempts by both teams.

“The boys have worked really hard all season. I’m just gutted for them that we couldn’t quite do it.”

Whitehaven, looking to bounce straight back up to the Championship, now go to Barrow for an all-Cumbrian play-off final after the Raiders saw off Newcastle in the other semi.

Ford added: “I’m bitterly disappointed but at the same time I’m immensely proud.

“My players have been tremendous all season, and that was evident here. They still looked sharp after 100 minutes. I’m gutted for them. I know how much it means to them.

“Congratulations to Whitehaven and to (player-boss) Carl Forster.

“I can’t fault the effort of my team, though. It was absolutely outstanding.”

York had led 10-0 early on but later trailed 20-10 before fighting back again.

Ford said: “We let the game get away from us in the first half with some poor kicks and sloppy transitions into defence, but we fought back and got back on the front foot.”

The Knights, who have had the best average attendance in League One barring Toronto, took a noisy contingent up to Cumbria.

Ford said: “The fans were great – they’ve been great all season.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t quite do it for them.”