Halifax Panthers warmed up for Wembley in the most perfect way possible with a famous 25-22 Betfred Championship victory over their old rivals and runaway leaders Featherstone Rovers, in a classic game in front of the Viaplay TV cameras.
James Woodburn-Hall stole the show, who’s all round performance including a brace of tries and a game clinching drop goal gave him the Man of the Match from the Viaplay TV pundits, but in truth it was a brilliant performance from 1-17 giving coach Simon Grix some potential selection headaches for the 1895 Cup Final at Wembley this coming Saturday.
Featherstone came to the Shay heavy favourites having lost only once in the League all year and on a ground where they have been dominant over Fax over the last decade. They wasted no time in starting the scoring as, after Louis Jouffret spilled the ball having seen his kick charged down by Matty Wildie, the Fev hooker found ex Panther Gadwin Springer close to the line and the French International was too strong for the Fax defence on their own goal line. Mark Kheirallah made no mistake from the tee to put the Rovers 0-6 up after only 2 minutes.
Fax struck right back though as lovely hands from Woodburn-Hall and the impressive Brandon Pickersgill found Jake Maizen, who shot round the outside of Joey Leilua to break through and feed the supporting Woodburn-Hall on the inside to finish off a well crafted try. Jouffret converted to level the scores at 6-6.
Back came Fev again though as Caleb Aekins found Ellis Longstaff, who timed an offload to perfection to send Kheirallah over to regain the lead, converting his own try for a 6-12 scoreline. The French International was then sent to the sinbin soon after as referee Liam Rush deemed he obstructed Maizen from diving on a ball to score rather than shepherding the ball.
Fax made the most of the numerical advantage as Matty Gee crashed over from a well disguised Jouffret pass close to the line, the Fax half back’s conversion tied the game at 12-12.
The Panthers then took the lead for the first time as Maizen wouldn’t be denied this time as once more Woodburn-Hall and Pickersgill combined brilliantly to send the Italian International over in the corner. Jouffret was unsuccessful from the boot for the first and what turned out to be the only time of the game but Fax still held a slender 16-12 lead.
Fax couldn’t hold out until half time with that lead as Craig Kopczak powered through some rather lapse goal line defence to score a rare try, Kheirallah’s conversion gave Rovers a slender 16-18 lead.
Normally the first score after half time in such a tight game is crucial and it was no different this time and it went the way of the Panthers through that man Woodburn-Hall again, who showed his ever growing confidence in his new half-back role, dummying and powering his way through the Fev defence to send the South Stand into raptures.
Jouffret goaled to regain the lead for Fax at 22-18. Where the first half was a free-scoring, see-saw affair, the second half was tighter and Jouffret’s decision to take a penalty shot at goal rather than challenging the tiring Fev defence showed that. He duly converted to give Fax a six point 24-18 lead.
Both sides toiled and threatened but Fax always seemed in control of the arm wrestle, Woodburn-Hall put the game beyond the visitors with 10 minutes to go after receiving the ball from Jouffret on the last tackle to pop over a one pointer to give the Panthers a two score 25-18 lead.
There was one last piece of drama in this classic game and a potential twist in the tale as Luke Briscoe scored a well deserved try in the corner for Fev but Fax held out to record a 25-18 victory and a much needed two Betfred Championship points as the business end of season comes with Wembley on the horizon and Panthers marching down there with their tails well and truly up.
Pickersgill, Walmsley, Maizen, Crooks, Saltonstall, Jouffret, Woodburn-Hall, Calcott, Moore, Murray, Kavanagh, Gee, Larroyer
Subs: O’Brien, Tangata, Lannon, Fleming
Tries: Woodburn-Hall (6, 46), Gee (17), Maizen (20)
Goals: Jouffret 3/4
Penalty: Jouffret 1/1
Drop Goal: Woodburn-Hall (74)
Kheirallah, Briscoe, Leilua, Hankinson, Gale, Aekins, Astley, Springer, Wildie, Lockwood, Hau, Longstaff, Taylor
Subs: Kopczak, Jones, Cozza, Smith
Tries: Springer (2), Kheirallah (12), Kopczak (26), Briscoe (78)
Goals: Kheirallah 3/4
Sin Bin: Kheirallah (15)
Match Sponsors: Stagefreight
Match Ball Sponsors: The Old Post Office