AFTER a dismal first half, there was a strong sense of deja vu occurring as Sheffield Eagles looked like saving their worst performance of the season for just when they needed their best.
Mark Aston’s Championship side were comfortably swept aside in the opening period yesterday by Hull FC, the Super League team who quite ruthlessly seized on most of their opponents’ numerous errors to go 22-0 ahead in this Challenge Cup fifth-round tie.
Sheffield, who had won eight straight games before losing to league leaders Leigh Centurions last weekend, simply could not get going in a disappointing display that seemed set to mirror their anti-climatic Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of London Broncos last July.
However, in the second half, the South Yorkshire club did their utmost to ensure there would not be a repeat of that let-down, showing real character to fight back to 22-12 on the hour mark courtesy of tries from Cory Aston and Menzie Yere.
Indeed, if Scott Turner’s effort just five minutes later had not been pulled back for a forward pass from young half-back Aston – a dubious call – the outcome may have been entirely different.
Instead, despite having seen stand-off Leon Pryce depart with a sternum injury and centre Kirk Yeaman playing as a makeshift second-row, the Black and Whites did just enough to steady and secure their place in tonight’s sixth-round draw.
It also marked a third successive win for them as they strive to start building some consistency to their game, something which will be aided by the potential return of captain Gareth Ellis and scrum-half Marc Sneyd from injuries for Friday’s game with Huddersfield Giants.
Hull head coach Lee Radford saw Jordan Thompson put in a fulsome display as replacement for loose forward Joe Westerman, who will have scans on an abdomen injury, and also handed a debut to 20-year-old Bobby Tyson-Wilson.
Both sides had been similarly scratchy in the opening exchanges, each making soft errors, but it was the visitors who found some rhythm first.
Mark Minchiello’s punishing, rough tackle on Aston, the son of Sheffield’s coach, saw Hull take possession and it was the Australian second-row who scored later in the resultant set to get things moving in the 18th minute.
Soon after, Eagles full-back Quentin Laulu Togagae tried a daring pass when jinking clear from his own goalline only to find centre Sam Smeaton had moved inside and, so, his pass headed straight into touch.
From there, a set move saw Hull hooker Danny Houghton pirouette 360 degrees before sending prop Mickey Paea crashing over and when Eagles’ Keal Carlile kicked out on the full from dummy-half, the visitors struck again.
This time it was Tom Lineham, Super League’s top tryscorer, who got over, cheekily dummying down the blindside from dummy half 10m out.
Sheffield winger Rob Worrincy dropped a high kick to offer Hull another chance but Yere stepped up with a hard hit to rattle the ball from Steve Michaels’s grasp.
Yet when Aston’s side did get some rare field position with a penalty, prop Mitch Stringer fumbled on only the second tackle and, instead, it was Hull who scored again, Houghton putting Pryce into space and the supporting Jamie Shaul scored.
Jordan Rankin converted all but the first of the four tries to see the Black and Whites take that dominant half-time advantage.
But Sheffield – who lost forward Jamie Langley to an early injury – were far more solid and organised in the second period, reducing the number of errors and forcing pressure on Hull’s line, Stringer particularly becoming more influential with some strong carries and offloads.
Dominic Brambani came off the bench, too, to offer better direction from half-back and they fully merited the score when Aston beat a couple of defenders and stretched over on 55 minutes.
Brambani converted and Sheffield’s confidence clearly increased. They scored a second try when Yere picked up a grubber for Brambani to improve again and, with Hull having lost Pryce to injury, the hosts sensed their struggling opponents could suddenly be fragile.
The visitors were furious when Shaul was deemed to have run Aston’s long kick into touch so when Turner crossed in the next set there clearly would have been more outrage if referee George Stokes had not deemed Aston’s pass had gone forward.
Hull finally got some much-needed territory to see Yeaman – back from a four-game injury absence – latch onto Rankin’s grubber, Rankin converting his own score after scampering over four minutes later to add some gloss to the final scoreline.
Sheffield Eagles: Laulu-Togagae; Worrincy, Smeaton, Yere, Turner; Briggs, Aston; Battye, Carlile, Thorpe, Davies, Langley, Taulapapa. Substitutes: Brambani, Blagbrough, Musolino, Stringer.
Hull FC: Shaul; Lineham, Michaels, Talanoa, Naughton; Pryce, Rankin; Paea, Houghton, Watts, Sa, Minichiello, Thompson. Substitutes: Palea’aesina, Tyson-Wilson, Yeaman, Howarth.
Referee: G Stokes (Manchester).