Halifax Panthers bid farewell to the Betfred Challenge Cup at the sixth round stage, succumbing to a 6-26 defeat against reigning World Club Champions and bookmakers’ favourites, St Helens. Despite the loss, the Panthers received widespread acclaim for their spirited performance and unwavering attitude throughout the match.
St Helens exhibited utmost respect for their opponents, as Coach Paul Wellens fielded a full-strength lineup, with the exception of James Roby and Mark Percival who were sidelined due to injuries. Although the Panthers put up a valiant fight, St Helens’ lineup packed with top internationals and numerous Super League Grand Final victories ultimately showcased their superiority over their part-time Championship counterparts.
The Viaplay cameras effectively captured Halifax’s determination and desire, yet the disparity between the Super League and the Championship became apparent. St Helens relentlessly applied defensive pressure and created numerous attacking opportunities. Joey Lussick powered his way over the try line from the dummy half position after James Bell was denied a try by the video referee in the preceding tackles. The conversion was missed, and with the score at 4-0, the game remained evenly poised. However, further misfortune befell the hosts as Halifax’s influential halfback, Joe Keyes, was forced to leave the field with a suspected torn pectoral muscle. This setback reduced the Panthers to 16 men, prompting regular hooker Tom Inman to assume Keyes’ role in the halves.
Many spectators anticipated a St Helens onslaught, but Halifax’s unity shone through as their resolute defence prevented the World Champions from capitalising on their scoring opportunities. Eventually, St Helens broke through, scoring back-to-back tries. Jake Wingfield touched down following a crash ball close to the try line, and former Golden Boot recipient Tommy Makinson finished off a delightful move from midfield, showcasing St Helens’ execution and class. Makinson successfully converted both tries, resulting in a 0-16 halftime lead for the Saints.
Halifax did manage to create a couple of half-chances, but their attempts were either thwarted by the St Helens defence or marred by poor execution. James Woodburn-Hall’s try was disallowed due to an offside infringement.
The second half commenced with St Helens quickly asserting their dominance once again. Jack Welsby exhibited his international pedigree by slicing through Halifax’s defensive line to score in the corner, extending St Helens’ lead to 0-20. Many feared that the relentless Saints would run away with the game, replicating their dominance over countless Super League sides during their four-year reign as titleholders.
However, the Panthers displayed their unwavering determination, gradually fighting their way back into the match. With better execution and a fortuitous bounce of the ball, they could have genuinely threatened the World Champions. Nonetheless, the immense defensive workload began to take its toll on Halifax, as Joey Lussick secured his second try of the night with a more straightforward dive over the try line, which Makinson successfully converted, resulting in a 0-26 scoreline with 10 minutes remaining.
The most exuberant cheer of the night emanated from the nearly 5,000-strong crowd two minutes later. Louis Jouffret found Matty Gee on a superb angle, allowing Gee to break through the Saints’ defensive line. Gee then drew in Jack Welsby before offloading to Jacob Fairbank, who darted under the posts in front of the jubilant South Stand. This well-deserved score, converted by Jouffret, marked the end of the scoring at 6-26, but not the end of the match.
With just 30 seconds left on the clock, Halifax Panthers were working the ball to the left, with Tom Inman in possession, when Morgan Knowles, who had just returned from a five-match suspension, struck Inman with a swinging arm directly to the head. This incident triggered a heated confrontation, with Fax players rushing to remonstrate with Knowles, who has transitioned from Wales to England on the international stage. To his credit, Inman promptly regained his footing. After the melee subsided, referee Aaron Moore reached into his back pocket and brandished a red card, slightly tarnishing St Helens’ performance but not diminishing the significance of the occasion.
The final whistle blew, and the Saints players applauded first the Panthers’ fans and then their own supporters, acknowledging that they had engaged in a fierce contest. St Helens now progress to the last 16 of the Betfred Challenge Cup, with hopes of reaching the Wembley final. Meanwhile, the Panthers remain in contention for a potential Wembley appearance via the 1895 Cup.