PAUL March praised his side’s defensive quality as Cougars finished their lengthy pre-season campaign with a hard-fought 18-14 victory over fellow League One promotion hopefuls Newcastle Thunder.

In awful conditions at Cougar Park, both sides put in a phenomenal effort despite the wet and muddy pitch causing numerous handling errors throughout.

March said: “The conditions didn’t help and made it all about the defence, which was superb.

“The middle unit was outstanding and I’ve got to mention Olly (Pursglove), whose work rate was massive and he played the full 80 in these conditions.

“We dominated defensively. Before we went out we talked about defending and it went straight to the lads’ heads.

“They looked like they enjoyed defending more, rather than being panicky.

“We were forcing them to pass when they didn’t need to and the lads were communicating more on the field.

“We’re getting to the business of the proper season now, so people need to be ready.”

Keighley took the lead midway through the first half. Rikki Sheriffe forced a Lee Mapals knock-on and his brother Jesse played a clever high offload out of the tackle to Paul White, who comfortably walked the ball home in the corner.

A poor finish to the first half by Keighley allowed the visitors to cross twice to take a four-point lead into the interval.

Thunder levelled with five minutes of the half remaining when Andy Gabriel was left facing a two-on-one and former Cougar Mapals used a Sam Bowring dummy run to his advantage to go over in the right corner.

And on the hooter, a clever chip over the top by reigning League One Young Player of the Year Matty Beharrell was caught in the air and put down behind the line by Stuart Kain, who came into the side in place of Jordan Blades during the warm-up.

With the conditions worsening after half-time, a Paul Handforth grubber got stuck in the mud behind Newcastle full back Jordan Meads and Ash Lindsay pounced to touch down next to the posts to restore the lead.

White dived home in the corner shortly after the hour mark to open up some breathing space between the two teams after a clever pass out of the tackle from Rikki Sheriffe.

Despite the two-try gap between the sides, the pressure in the final stages came from the men from Tyneside as they pushed to get themselves back into the contest.

They threatened a grandstand finish two minutes from time when Bowring broke down the left hand side from a penalty to offload on the inside, allowing Kain in for his second of the afternoon.

But Cougars held on and will be glad to finally get into competitive action on Sunday when amateur outfit East Leeds visit for the first round of the League One Cup. March hopes the difference in class will tell but said: “They’re going to be a threat and we’ve got to respect what they do.

“Hopefully our fitness and attitude will give us the edge.”

COUGARS: Jesse Sheriffe, Gabriel, Williams, R Sheriffe, White, Jones, Handforth, Cherryholme, Feather, Rawlins, Pursglove, Graham, Lindsay. Interchanges: Lawton (not used), Haigh, Jode Sheriffe, Bailey, Kelly, Watson, P March (not used).

THUNDER: Meads, Mapals, Kain, Brown, Bowring, Beharrell, Hardcastle, Mexico, Craig, Barron, Payne, Clarke, Wabo. Interchanges (all used): Fewlass, Boot, Welsh, Stoker, Clayton.

CROWD: 397 FIXTURES: Sunday, League One Cup (3pm): Barrow v Gloucestershire All Golds, Keighley v East Leeds, London Skolars v York, Oldham v Coventry, Rochdale v South Wales, Swinton v Hemel Stags, West Hull v North Wales Crusaders.