KEIGHLEY Cougars had plenty to take heart from in their third and final friendly of pre-season yesterday afternoon.

They hosted Halifax Panthers at a chilly Cougar Park and defended gamely, before eventually falling to a 16-6 defeat.

It was the first meeting between the sides since Fax came to BD21 in September and stole a last-gasp 23-22 win on the penultimate weekend of the 2023 Betfred Championship season.

That last-gasp Louis Jouffret drop goal for the visitors proved fatal for Keighley, whose defeat to London Broncos on the final day saw them relegated to League 1 on points difference.

This winter friendly was less closely-contested, but Cougars gave a fine account of themselves defensively, having shipped a half-century of points to Oldham and Castleford in their two previous friendlies.

The Panthers dominated the early stages and thought they had found the breakthrough on 14 minutes when Ben Tibbs flew through, only to be brilliantly held up over the line by the home defence.

Fax took the lead moments later though in fortunate circumstances.

A kick through hit the base of the post and fell perfectly for James Woodburn-Hall to dive on to and score.

Jouffret slotted over the resulting conversion from bang in front, before Tibbs was denied for a second time in five minutes.

He went over in the corner from Zack McComb’s pass, but the ball was ruled to have gone forward, so the try was chalked off.

Keighley went close when a kick early in the count by Jack Miller caught the Fax defence out, only for the ball to just run dead before the chasing Adam Ryder could touch it down.

Cougars had a great chance to level the scores on the half-hour mark, but overplayed a set near the visitors’ line, as one pass too many saw the ball lost forward.

Keighley had Fax under real pressure, but the Championship side then increased their lead against the run of play, going the length of the field to do so.

A nice pass out wide from Tom Inman sent Tibbs racing away down the right edge and he timed his pass inside perfectly to Woodburn-Hall, who went over for his second try of the day.

Jouffret pushed his conversion attempt wide, but Panthers should have added to their lead before the break anyway, only for sloppy handling to cost them near the Keighley line.

Ryder almost capitalised on Woodburn-Hall dropping Miller’s high bomb backwards right at the start of the second half, but the double try-scorer recovered in the nick of time to touch the ball down and concede a dropout.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Jack Miller's clever kicking put Halifax in bother at times yesterday.Jack Miller's clever kicking put Halifax in bother at times yesterday. (Image: JT Sports Media.)

Keighley almost scored again moments later, but kicked through when they had an inviting overlap on the left.

Fax punished them soon after, as Woodburn-Hall and Joe Keyes linked up to put Olly Davies through into a gap.

The second row fended off a Keighley challenge before finding Jouffret, who crossed unopposed in the corner.

The Frenchman impressively converted his own score from out wide, but that third Halifax try galvanised, rather than deflated, Cougars.

They battered away at the visitors’ line 10 minutes into the second half, and broke through when Jordan Schofield took in a short pass close to the line and held off two defenders to score next to the posts.

Miller added the easy conversion to leave Keighley just 16-6 behind.

A couple of injuries to Fax, including a nasty-looking ankle knock for young forward Will Calcott, slowed the pace of the game down somewhat, but Woodburn-Hall almost completed his hat-trick on the hour mark, only to be stopped just short.

Keighley prop Mark Ioane came agonisingly close to scoring the home side’s second try with 15 minutes to go.

He went hard and low at the Fax line and looked to be over, only to lose control of the ball as he stretched out to score.

Halifax had a smattering of half-chances in the closing stages, but nothing to overly trouble Keighley, meaning the game finished in a low-scoring win for the visitors.

Cougars return to action this Sunday, as they host Dewsbury Rams on the opening weekend of this year’s 1895 Cup.

Keighley are in Group 2 alongside Dewsbury and Bradford Bulls, and will face their neighbours from BD6 at Cougar Park on Sunday, February 18.