THERE was a knowing look from Jordan Rankin as the Hull FC full-back described the match-winning performance of his previously unheralded team-mate Curtis Naughton.
In among ex-Great Britain star Leon Pryce, NRL star Mark Minichiello and the £100,000 buy Marc Sneyd, their fourth winter signing, a 20-year-old Yorkshireman, arrived at the KC Stadium relatively under the radar.
The winger may have joined from Sydney Roosters but Naughton only played second string in Australia and, before that, had made just one Super League appearance for Bradford Bulls.
However, there is clearly some talent there; Hull head coach Lee Radford felt confident enough to drop leading try-scorer Tom Lineham in favour of him for Saturday’s Challenge Cup tie with Castleford Tigers and duly reaped the rewards.
Dewsbury-born Naughton, who had spent much of this season on dual-registration in the Championship with Doncaster, scored his first professional hat-trick to set up a quarter-final with Leeds Rhinos and his boss said the shirt “is now his to lose.”
Australian Rankin, who scored twice himself in the final quarter when spirited Tigers still only trailed 16-14 after fighting back from 16-0 down, admitted: “He’s a talented player.
“He’s got pace to burn, is very handy on the line and certainly coming out of trouble he offers a lot.
“He took his chances today with two hands – and that’s not going to be the last time you see him score a hat-trick either.”
Praise indeed. Radford revealed he had been “warned off” Naughton by various people who knew him when contemplating offering the player a 12-month contract to return home but it seems implausible now that deal won’t soon be extended and, no doubt, improved.
On the rare absence of Lineham, the 2013 Dream Team star who has scored 13 tries this term, the Hull coach said: “He’s sat in the stands.
“He had a bit of a hamstring Monday in training but concentration-wise at Warrington last week he probably wasn’t at his best and cost us one or two tries so this change was one we were always going to make.
“Curtis got his chance and took it. He was excellent on his debut against St Helens and carried on from where he left off really.”
St Helens, coincidentally, are Hull’s next opponents at KC Stadium on Friday.
Rankin, a constant attacking threat against Castleford as he continues to keep Jamie Shaul out of the side, said: “I think we’ve started to find a bit of form at the moment.
“We’re starting to face adversity and those moments when the game is on the line we’re starting to come out the other end which is what we have the players in the team to do.
“We’ve some big-game players and it’s finally coming together.
“Putting out a scoreline like that certainly doesn’t hurt our chances for the rest of the year and there’s only good things to come from us now.
“There’s no better test than doing it against the champions this week and we’ll come in on Monday ready to go for Friday.
“It’s going to be a tough game, but I’d back our boys to play another 80-minute performance like today and, hopefully, get the two points.”
Hull certainly did face some adversity given they were without captain Gareth Ellis, Jordan Thompson and Setaimata Sa for most of the second period due to injuries of varying severity, Thompson the worst.
But, with in-form props Liam Watts and Mickey Paea delivering two forceful spells each, they had the requisite power when needed to take control, Rankin’s well-worked first try in the 62nd minute crucially giving them breathing space before Castleford capitulated badly.
Nevertheless, rarely can a side have strung together six wins from seven outings – like Hull now have – and still struggle to somehow convince critics of their ability.
Doubters will remain but, in winning at Warrington by a point and now defeating last season’s beaten Challenge Cup finalists, Radford’s side are undoubtedly showing greater character and desire, and no little skill, too, as Sneyd and Pryce continue to develop their partnership.
Castleford, though, are a frustrating enigma; at times they look to have recaptured their stellar best of 2014 – as they did here to strike three times in quick succession to frighten the hosts – only to slip into worryingly common bad habits.
After Ashley Gibson had given them a sniff just before the break, James Clare and Mike McMeeken then adding further tries before the 48th minute with a solitary Luke Gale conversion to get to within two points, Daryl Powell’s side should have kicked on, especially given Hull’s lack of replacements. But a succession of poor last play options – generally-speaking ineffectual kicks, but also some bad handling – ensured they never did and, instead, the home side found another gear, Naughton completing his treble with a stunning 70m run that left Jordan Tansey clutching at thin air after his first-half double and Paea’s plundered effort initially set up the position for victory.
Kirk Yeaman also exploited them late on, Sneyd finishing with six goals as Castleford, who host Huddersfield on Thursday, were left with more questions than answers.
Hull FC: Rankin; Naughton, Talanoa, Yeaman, Michaels; Pryce, Sneyd; Watts, Houghton, Paea, Minichello, Sa, Ellis. Substitutes: Abdull, Thompson, Green, Whiting.
Castleford Tigers: Tansey; Gibson, Webster, Shenton, Clare; Roberts, Gale; Lynch, Milner, Bailey, Holmes, Moors, Massey. Substitutes: Millington, Jewitt, McMeeken, Finn.
Referee: J Child (Dewsbury).