Surprise play-off package Whitehaven came into their game against the heavily fancied Halifax Panthers on the back of some scintillating form. Despite Halifax ending the season in third and Whitehaven in sixth there was very little to choose between the two sides over the duration of the regular season with honours shared in the two regular rounds games, Whitehaven winning the most recent meeting just a fortnight ago.
Halifax were the favourites for the win, and to secure a game against Featherstone Rovers next weekend having been given a six point handicap on the coupon, but Whitehaven knew that they were more than capable of springing a surprise which would see them booking their flights to Toulouse.
Scott Grix, making his last appearance at the New Shay for Halifax set up a great opportunity with a fourth minute 40-20 and on the fifth tackle Conor McGrath strolled over in the right corner after an expansive passing move. The conversion drifted wide of the posts, but it was the ideal start for the Panthers on the back of a great piece of Grix skill.
‘Fax were in again on ten with Matt Garside taking an Adam Tangata pass to go through a gap from five metres out. James Woodburn-Hall took over the kicking duties and added the conversion for 10-0 with eleven minutes on the clock.
After being up against it for the opening twenty Whitehaven finally got on the scoreboard on twenty-one when Liam Cooper picked up a ball which was squeezed out in the tackle to score from a metre out. Louis Jouffret added the conversion to narrow the arrears to four points.
What had looked like it would be a one-sided encounter after the early exchanges had turned into a real battle between two evenly matched sides, but Halifax were about to strike with a double whammy before the interval.
With five minutes remaining the Panthers extended their lead after a great Worthington show-and-go and break and an accurate pass inside to Woodburn-Hall to sprint in from forty metres out for a terrific try, Liam Harris kicked the extra two as the scorer received treatment under the sticks.
One minute before the half-time hooter Garside punished a Whitehaven ball loss when he took a Harris pass to run the angle and score, Grix being instrumental in the build-up. Harris added the conversion for 22-6 as the hooter sounded. It was a long way back for ‘Haven.
On forty-four Whitehaven grabbed their second try of the game with a Chris Taylor offload over the Halifax line which was picked up and grounded by Andrew Bullman on the line. Lachlan Walmsley pushed his kick wide of the far upright, Whitehaven now two converted tried behind.
On fifty-two Ryan King went in for the third ‘Haven try as he brushed aside four tacklers to crash over the line and get the ball on the ground. Walmsley was again unable to add the conversion, the visitors now eight adrift.
Conor Robinson extended the Halifax lead on sixty-two with a penalty goal, but the lead was still ten points, there was still some scope for a Whitehaven fightback.
As the clock ran down the visitors became increasingly desperate and the home side increasingly determined.
With a minute remaining Bullman got his second of the game, diving over in the corner despite the attentions of three defenders. Jouffret added the conversion for 20-24 with under sixty seconds left on the clock.
The final hooter sounded as Grix booted the ball out of play in his own goal area as the Cumbrians went down despite an heroic second half fightback.
It wasn’t the walk in the park that Halifax would have hoped for before kick-off, Whitehaven putting in a tough and rough eighty minutes but not being able to maintain their own fairy tale for an additional week. A couple of quick tries for the Panthers won the game which now sees them take on Featherstone Rovers next weekend for a position in the Million Pound game.
Halifax Panthers: Woodburn-Hall (T, G), Saltonstall, Worthington, McComb, McGrath (T), Grix, Harris (2G), Tangata, Moore, Murray, Kavanagh, Garside (2T), Fairbank. Subs: Larroyer, Davies, Morris, Robinson (G).
Whitehaven: Walmsley, Bulman (2T), Taylor, Dixon, Mossop, Jouffret (2G), Williams, Thornley, Newton, Graham, King (T), Cooper (T), Wilkinson. Subs: Aiye, Bradley, Dawson, Walker.
Referee: Chris Kendall.
Score Progression: 4-0, 8-0, 10-0, 10-4, 10-6, 14-6, 16-6, 20-6, 22-6 : HT : 22-10, 22-14, 24-14, 42-18, 24-20: FT.