MARTYN SADLER reflects on a remarkable victory by Hull Kingston Rovers on Friday night
What a contrast this game was when compared to the game the night before between Wigan and Leeds.
There were thrills, spills, risks, invention and exultation if you were a Hull Kingston Rovers supporter.
In contrast, if you were a Warrington fan it was an unfortunate case of déjà-vu and yet more disappointment. It was the third year in a row that the Wolves been eliminated from the play-offs in the opening round at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, having suffered the same fate against Castleford in 2019 and Hull FC in 2020.
It was a sad legacy for their coach Steve Price, whose four years at the club have been distinguished by a Challenge Cup victory over St Helens in 2019, a Grand Final defeat to Wigan in 2018 and a Challenge Cup defeat to the Catalans Dragons in the same year.
Over his four-year tenure that record, although respectable by most standards, is not good enough to satisfy the huge expectations at a club like Warrington, which would go into every season expecting to win at least one trophy, if not more.
The Wolves came into the game with what looked like a strong team on paper, with only Mike Cooper missing from the squad, while Josh Charnley and Blake Austin were not selected in the matchday 17.
Since the expensive arrival of George Williams, Austin has been edged out of the halfback roles and, after his brilliant early form in 2019, he has been a shadow of his earlier self, to such a degree that his non-selection was hardly a surprise, while youngster Josh Thewlis was preferred on the wing to Charnley.
Price had explained his selection policy before the game.
“I’ve got the utmost confidence that the guys that will step in will do a great job,” Price said.
“We’ve got a number of quality players that miss out, but we’ve got a number of good young players that have been playing good footy and I just didn’t want to leave them out.”
Whether the result would have been any different if Austin and Charnley had played we’ll never know, but the problem for Price was the number of mistakes his side made, while their big players were unable to inspire them to victory against very enthusiastic opponents.
And yet early in the game it was the Robins’ players making mistakes, principally Jimmy Keinhorst, who was on the wing for the injured Ryan Hall.
Keinhorst dropped George Williams’ kick at the end of the first Warrington set and then knocked on in a tackle.
Warrington had several scoring chances in that period, first when Jake Mamo couldn’t take Williams’ kick to touch down, instead knocking on, while a Williams grubber then resulted in a goal-line dropout and shortly afterwards Daryl Clark lost the ball over the line.
Then we saw Mikey Lewis injured in a tackle by Chris Hill that was put on report and for a moment it looked as though he might have to leave the field. Fortunately it didn’t come to that, but Brad Taikirangi did have to leave the field for a head injury assessment soon afterwards after an attempted tackle on Sitaleki Akauola. At that point things certainly didn’t look promising for the Robins.
But sometimes relatively minor incidents can turn a game.
On this occasion it was a Williams’ grubber that rolled dead just after the 14-minute mark.
That took the pressure off Hull KR, gave them a seven-tackle set and just over a minute later Jordan Abdull was selling a dummy to Jake Mamo and crossing the Wolves’ line to score the first try of the game.
Suddenly it was possible to identify the seeds of doubt growing slowly in the minds of the Warrington players and their mistake ratio began to rise.
The Robins players also made their share of handling errors, but they grew much safer in the air, with Will Dagger jumping brilliantly to take a Williams bomb just after 24 minutes and then Keinhorst making up for his earlier errors by doing well to catch Gareth Widdop’s lofted kick in the 35th minute, by which time Rovers were a man down after the harsh sinbinning of Albert Vete.
But the most crucial moment of the first half came right on the hooter, after the Wolves had kept the ball alive brilliantly and Williams was haring to the line but was brilliantly tackled in a joint effort by Ben Crooks and Muizz Mustapha.
And Crooks was at it again at the start of the second half, when his tackle again stopped Williams from scoring.
It’s sometimes said that team spirit can never trump class in Rugby League, but this game went some way to disproving that conventional wisdom.
And I was tremendously impressed by the spirit shown by the Leeds loanee Mustapha when he was on the field.
He will presumably return to Headingley next season, but if I were Hull KR I would make strenuous efforts to keep him at Craven Park. When the loan deal was agreed in November last year, there were some reports that suggested that the Robins would have an option to convert the loan into a permanent deal, and if that’s true it would be an option they would be wise to take.
The Robins will now go to Perpignan to play the Catalans Dragons this Thursday. Again they will not be the favourites to win and reach Old Trafford. But it would be foolish to bet against them.
As we have seen, the Robins have been on the rise this year, both on and off the field.
It’s amazing how often those two facets of a club combine together as a mark of progress.