THIS wasn’t just the start of a new season for Halifax, it was the start of a new era.
And with incoming coach Karl Harrison fielding nine new players in his starting 13, and giving debuts to another five off the bench, the former Great Britain forward could not have wanted much more from his side’s first pre-season outing.
Fax won comfortably, scoring seven tries, and while they understandly lacked some cohesion with the ball in hand, there were positives across the park for Harrison and his backroom staff.
Of the new boys, the former Rochdale utility forward Craig Ashall was the pick; impressing in two separate spells - first at loose forward, then at hooker - and doing more than enough to suggest he can emulate last season’s success in Championship One at a higher level.
The forwards Dane Manning, Iain Morrison and Adam Robinson all had their moments, with Morrison in particular becoming more and more effective as the game went on.
And two of Harrison’s unheralded recruits, the former Leeds playmaker Calum Casey and Oldham back Ben Heaton, who have both yet to play at Championship level, made impressive try scoring debuts from the bench.
Harrison had stuck to his word and fielded what amounted to a full strength side: If you were fit and available, you played.
The Cougars looked considerably less star-studded on paper, with last season’s line up only augmented by former Wakefield prop Michael Korkidas and ex-Hunslet player-boss Paul March as coach Jason Demetriou left big buys Sam Obst, Semi Tadulala and Danny Jones sat in the stands along with hooker Jermaine Wray.
Keighley enjoyed the early pressure, although an Ashall interception almost on his own goalline scuppered the visitors’ chances.
Fax responded with their first attacking thrust; Sean Penkywicz combining with his props in midfield and Paul White going close to scoring on the right hand side.
Harrison’s side weren’t helping themselves with the number of unforced errors they were making, and a particularly clumsy fumble from Rob Worrincy put Keighley on the front foot again.
This time they did make it count, full back James Haythornthwaite running a perfect line from deep on to March’s pass and slipping between Mick Nanyn and Anthony Thackeray as he sped to the line from 20 metres out.
Centre Danny Lawton converted for a 6-0 lead and another mistake, this time from Wayne Reittie on the other side of the field, gave March the chance to force a repeat set with a typically intelligent short kick.
Nanyn’s potential value was underlined by what happened next, the centre firing a booming drop out that cleared halfway before being fumbled by the Keighley player.
Fax made good use of the field position, with some slick handling and a slice of fortune - Paul Handforth’s pass bouncing off a defender’s head - giving Steve Tyrer the chance to apply a neat finish in the left hand corner.
Nanyn missed the conversion, but Fax were slowly establishing a grip on proceedings, something that was perfectly illustrated when Ashall produced a peach of a pass for substitute Jim Gannon to score with his first touch of the ball on quarter time.
Nanyn kicked the goal and although Keighley rallied briefly with a 40/20 kick from the young half back Jymel Coleman, Fax stretched their lead when Thackeray produced a trademark dummy and pass that sent another replacement, Casey, over with his first touch.
Nanyn made it 16-6 with the conversion and the home side probably should have scored again in the run up to half time when the big centre twice hacked a loose ball clear only for Worrincy to bounce it under pressure from a defender as he dived for the touchdown.
Harrison rang the changes at half time, partly as a reaction to those early errors, putting Ryan Fieldhouse on at full back, and Heaton and Jessjo Sheriffe on the wings in an all-new back three.
Thackeray almost scored after slicing clean through the defence early in the second period, with only a great tackle from Haythornthwaite and a lack of support preventing the try.
Neither side was hitting top gear at that stage, although Fax clearly had the greater potential with the ball, typified by Tyrer’s break down the left.
Thackeray finally got his try on 57 minutes, Penkywicz taking the ball to the right as Handforth lined up his backs on the left, stabbing the ball through from close range and the former Widnes playmaker diving in for the score.
Tyrer added the goal to take Fax out to 22-6 and the home side immediately put together their best move of the game; Morrison storming clear from deep inside his own half, sending Tyrer away down the sideline and Anthony Bowman backing up to put Fieldhouse over.
Tyrer’s kick gave Fax a 28-6 lead that accurately reflected the way the game had developed, and they might have had another when Ashall appeared to have the ball on the whitewash with 10 minutes to go.
Heaton showed real athleticism to scramble over with six minutes to go after Manning floated the ball over the top, and there was just time for Sheriffe to touchdown in the other corner after Ashall and Tyrer took care of the build up, Tyrer converting from the touchline.
Tyrer then rounded things off in style after Morrison and a runaway Joe Chandler broke from deep.