FEARS Hull FC were burnt out proved unfounded as they helped produce a thrilling Super League semi-final last night but, ultimately, their season is over.
Admittedly, having won the Challenge Cup last month, Lee Radford’s side’s title assault ended with four defeats in their last five games since success at Wembley.
But, fittingly after a season that promised so much, they went out fighting during an epic encounter with Wigan Warriors who edged their way to a fourth successive Grand Final and will play Warrington Wolves next Saturday.
Wigan took a 14-0 lead on the stroke of half-time and, in fairness, that was about par for the course with all Hull’s recent ailments – tired, jaded bodies and no cutting edge – hampering them yet again.
However, a stirring response saw the East Yorkshire club – long-time leaders in 2016 – hit back with three tries via Josh Bowden, Liam Watts and Steve Michaels to lead 18-16 in the 62nd minute.
A first Old Trafford appearance since 2006 suddenly looked possible again but their hearts were broken as Sam Powell scored the decisive try nine minutes from time, Anthony Gelling rounding off Wigan’s night in the dying moments.
Hull were hit by the surprise loss of Gareth Ellis, their inspirational captain who is favourite to win the Steve Prescott Man of Steel on Monday night, with a thumb injury and, also, Sika Manu.
Nevertheless, in that second period in particular, Radford’s side were well-served by veteran Danny Washbrook and, with his added ball-handling, Jordan Abdull, the youngster who came on at loose forward to inspire Hull’s bold bid. There was no fairytale ending for Kirk Yeaman, though, the long-serving centre who has now retired.
Given their abject first half show, Hull would have been happy going in 8-0 down but, with 45 seconds remaining, Matty Smith’s drop-goal was charged down by Danny Houghton 20m out.
John Bateman picked up and sashayed infield, fending off Marc Sneyd before confidently straightening up and diving early amid the feet of opponents to slide over between the posts.
Smith converted, his first of the night, and Shaun Wane’s side claimed an advantage that, given the lack of Hull’s creative power, always looked like being enough.
For all Wigan have been hamstrung by injuries themselves they still boasted an England half-back pairing and an England second-row duo, too, not to mention an England winger and full-back. You get the picture.
It was George Williams, the reigning Super League Young Player of the Year, who made the telling contributions to help the hosts build that advantage. Twice the stand-off kicked in the first half to force drop-outs and both times the reward was a try.
Lewis Tierney, the winger showing all the finishing hallmarks of his father, the former Wigan and England star Jason Robinson, scored on each occasion.
After both Frank Pritchard and Watts made early handling errors, he squeezed over in the corner following some slick handling in the eighth minute.
Tierney did so again just six minutes later, this time latching onto Dan Sarginson’s final pass after Oliver Gildart’s intelligent dummy-run had left Hull centre Mahe Fonua bemused.
For all of Hull’s uncertainty, the fact Smith missed both conversion attempts from wide out, meant Radford’s side were still only 8-0 down so the damage was not fatal.
However, the signs were there. Mark Minichiello, one of six Hull players named in the Super League Dream Team on Monday, spilled next although at least his colleagues hurried to drag Gildart into touch.
Powell departed with a serious head gash as Fonua found his range but Chris Green – recalled given Manu’s absence – dropped more ball as FC continued to struggle.
Admittedly, they did not earn a penalty until the 22nd minute but even then, when the visitors did gain some field position, the end to their sets were particularly benign. Sneyd’s kick was threatening but, alarmingly, the chase was sloth-like, a sign of Hull’s problems of late.
When Minichiello found some space, Yeaman advanced deep but, again, Wigan escaped after a dire Tuimavave kick.
Tuimavave, meanwhile, was fortunate to stay on when a swinging arm aimed at Liam Farrell went unseen but there was no luck when that Smith kick ricocheted for Wigan to go in 14-0 up.
However, Hull returned unrecognisable from their first-half showing. With more purpose in their running, greater urgency and extra variety they turned the game with two tries inside just four minutes at the start of the second period.Bowden, the Hull-born prop, made a real impact with a couple of strong carries and he scored in the 46th minute after an diagonal break infield from Washbrook.
Sneyd converted and did so again when Watts crashed over from Danny Houghton’s short pass after Sarginson had dropped the ball in the tackle.
Michaels had picked up the loose ball and, though Williams brought him down short, his side eventually got over, Sarginson fortunate not to be yellow-carded for a professional foul.
Sensing the increasing danger, Smith slotted a 55th-minute penalty but that proved too conservative as Hull struck with that dramatic play.
Shaul dabbed a kick through and followed through to pressure Tierney, who spilled for Michaels to stretch out and get a touch.
But referee Robert Hicks waved play on as Gildart picked up the loose ball and raced 100m to cross at the other end.
Understandably, he sought the advice of video referee Ben Thaler but awarded a try – to Gildart – on the field. After an inordinate number of replays, Thaler finally over-ruled him to give Michaels the score, Sneyd’s conversion putting Hull ahead.
A brilliant Shaul tackle on Bateman denied Wigan a quick response but the hosts did hit back when they kept the ball alive for Powell to jubilantly dive between the posts in the 71st minute, Smith adding the extras.
Wigan Warriors: Sarginson; Charnley, Gelling, Gildart, Tierney; Williams, Smith; Crosby, Powell, Nuuausala, Bateman, Isa. Substitutes: Tautai, Sutton, Shorrocks, Bretherton.
Hull FC: Shaul; Michaels, Fonua, Yeaman, Talanoa; Tuimavave, Sneyd; Taylor, Houghton, Watts, Pritchard, Minichiello, Washbrook. Substitutes: Green, Bowden, Thompson, Abdull.
Referee: R Hicks (Oldham).