HULL FC are heading back to Wembley with another chance to, at last, rid themselves of one of the most unwanted records in rugby league.
If Lee Radford’s side play anything like they did last night, when their unquestionable spirit, courage and sheer desire saw them through a bruising and epic Ladbrokes Challenge Cup semi-final, they will finally win at the national stadium for the first time in their 151-year history.
The Super League leaders face the winner of today’s other semi-final between Wakefield Trinity and Warrington Wolves in London on August 27, their bid for a potential treble firmly on course.
Led superbly by captain Gareth Ellis and scrum-half Marc Sneyd with Mahe Fonua – before being stretchered off with a head knock – and Sika Manu causing carnage down Wigan Warriors’ left edge, they had the better performers last night but how they had to scrap to secure their passage.
Having battled back from an 8-2 deficit early in the second half to lead 16-8 through tries from Steve Michaels and Fetuli Talanoa, the East Yorkshire club had to strain every sinew after Willie Isa’s 70th-minute try for Wigan set up a fierce late onslaught at their line.
Hull, who had more than 7,000 joyous fans drowning out their Wigan counterparts in the 10,488 crowd at Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium, held their nerve, though, in champion style.
They lost 16-0 against Wigan at Wembley three years ago but they are a far more superior side now.
Friday nights might still leave some fans cold as a Challenge Cup semi-final slot but in all other ways this was a classic last-four meeting.
Those two tries in five minutes early in the second period crucially turned the absorbing, fiercely-fought semi-final in Hull’s favour.
Trailing 6-2, despite having the better chances in a pulsating first half, there was some doubt as to whether Radford’s side would be able to break down Wigan’s familiar stubborn resistance.
However, they did so with a try in the 47th minute that was worthy of winning at Wembley let alone levelling a semi-final in South Yorkshire.
There was countless offloads in the middle, with Ellis and Frank Pritchard at the centre of it all, and then, when the ball did work its way wide, both Manu – who was outstanding in the second-row – and Fonua proved slick in fashioning Australian winger Michaels with the score.
Sneyd curled in the touchline conversion and – after Jamie Shaul almost scored when Sam Tomkins completely missed the full-back’s grubber – they were in again on 52 minutes.
This time it was a gift; Dominic Manfredi, the Wigan winger tipped for England honours this autumn, followed Tomkins’ lead by making a real mess of Sneyd’s high kick under little pressure, Talanoa gleefully touching down in front of the Hull faithful with his dejected opponent holding his head in his hands.
Sneyd once more converted and when he added a penalty on the hour mark for an eight-point advantage, Hull fans sensed it would already be enough in a game of such tight margins.
But Isa, the former Castleford Tigers second-row, made them fight all the way.
Hull trailed 6-2 at the break when really, given the amount of quality possession they secured, they should have been leading.
Three times they kicked cleverly to elicit a drop-out from Wigan but each time then wasted the ball.
Carlos Tuimavave threw a lazy forward pass for one and, with the last, just two minutes before the break, Jordan Thompson criminally fumbled when playing the ball on the first tackle.
Wigan must have headed into the changing rooms laughing – they are a defensively dogged side enough already without being let off so easily – and it was painful for Sneyd whose clever kicking had forced two of the drop-outs.
Hull’s main chance to break score in that first half came from Sneyd’s second such effort, when Ellis was eased into space by Scott Taylor, the former Wigan prop who sucked in defenders before releasing his captain in the shadow of the posts.
You sensed if Ellis had ploughed forward from 10m out he would have scored but the veteran back-row hesitated slightly to try and fool his former England colleague Tomkins.
The Wigan full-back managed to just get enough of tackle on his opponent who stretched out and, it was confirmed by video referee Robert Hicks, planted the ball down marginally short.
Sneyd was then guilty of a forward pass himself and Hull were let off soon after.
With a rare opportunity, Wigan’s Lewis Tierney was denied after Oliver Gildart forced a final pass forward when more composure would have seen the Airlie Birds staring at a 10-2 deficit at least.
Sneyd had kicked a 25th minute penalty – a clear sign of how defences were on top – when Ben Flower collared Chris Green with a high tackle.
That came in response to Wigan’s solitary try of the half, a bizarre affair when George Williams, their young England stand-off, straightened up and darted through a flat-footed Hull line.
It was bizarre as no-one apart from the Wigan players seemed to realise he had actually scored.
Smith converted and then added a penalty early in the second period but it was relentless Hull who took control.
Wigan Warriors: S Tomkins; Tierney. Sarginson, Gildart, Manfredi; Williams, Smith; Sutton, Powell, Flower, Isa, Bateman, O’Loughlin. Substitutes: Mossop, Tautai, Crosby, Bretherton.
Hull FC: Shaul; Michaels, Fonua, Yeaman, Talanoa; Tuimavave, Sneyd; Taylor, Houghton, Watts, Manu, Minichiello, Ellis. Substitutes: Thompson, Pritchard, Washbrook, Green.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).