WHAT a perfect birthday present for Mr Sheffield Eagles.
Mark Aston, the club’s charismatic head coach, turned 48 yesterday and was able to bask in the glory of what he described as their best performance since the famous Wembley heroics of 1998.
In beating a worryingly inept Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, they became only the second Championship team to defeat Super League opponents in 16 Qualifiers games and it was certainly a fitting end to the season.
Aston, who won the Lance Todd Trophy when Sheffield shocked Wigan in the biggest-ever Challenge Cup final upset 17 years ago, had wanted to see his squad finish on a high for a number of reasons.
Principally, though, it was because at least six of those featuring yesterday were playing their final game for the club, mainly as a result of the Eagles switching from part-time to full-time status in 2016.
They followed through and duly got the rewards they deserved for a superb defensive performance, particularly in the second half when they extended a 16-10 interval lead and kept their Super League opponents pointless despite being under intense pressure for long periods.
“It reminds me of the ‘98 Challenge Cup final as there was no way Wigan were going to beat us that day,” admitted Aston afterwards.
“And there was just no way Wakefield were going to beat us today.
“They’d have had to shoot us to get over. I’m so proud of them.
“They wanted it so much and just kept putting their bodies on the line.
“It was outstanding and sometimes in life you get out what you deserve.
“They signed off with a massive amount of pride and passion.”
Sheffield’s dynamic full-back Quentin Laulu-Togagae was to the fore, helping to create their three first-half tries and then sealing victory with his own score in the 71st minute that finished off meek Wakefield.
From Trinity’s point of view, this certainly was far from ideal preparation for Saturday’s crucial Million Pound Game with Bradford Bulls.
They already knew before kick-off they had secured home advantage for that crunch tie – which sees the winners in Super League in 2016 – after embarrassed Bradford had crashed 52-18 against Halifax on Saturday.
However, they had fielded a weakened team, resting plenty in readiness for next week, something Wakefield didn’t do yesterday.
There was no score from either side yesterday until Sheffield crossed via Scott Turner in the 18th minute.
Laulu-Togagae was the instigator with a lovely weaving run and then kick for the winger to pounce and Corey Aston was in again soon after when another chipped kick, this time in midfield, caused chaos for the visitors.
Pat Walker added the first of his three goals but Wakefield finally responded when Danny Kirmond, their captain playing his first game since June following shoulder surgery, crossed in the corner after 27 minutes.
Nevertheless, Laulu-Togagae stirred once more with another pinpoint kick for Menzie Yere to add Sheffield’s third try seven minutes later, Dom Brambani’s goal making it 16-4.
Wakefield were fortunate to get a foothold when Ben Kavanagh angled over after smart work from Ken Sio with just 25 seconds of the half remaining for Joe Arundel to convert and leave it finely balanced at 16-10.
Within seconds of the restart, Arundel surged clear and supplied Jacob Miller but the Australian inexplicably dropped the pass with the line begging.
It was a crucial moment in the game; from thereon in, the Eagles defence simply did not look like crumbling again.
Equally so, the visitors made a raft of unforced handling errors in good positions and so it was Sheffield who pulled further ahead when Walker slotted a 65th minute penalty following a rare excursion out of their own half.
He converted again when James Davey, the ex-Trinity hooker, broke clear down the middle to send Laulu-Togagae over for that clincher.
The win saw Sheffield move from bottom up a place to seventh which also secured an extra £50,000 in prize money. “It’d have been better if Bradford had done their job Saturday, then we’d have gone higher again and gained £300,000!” joked Aston.
“The boys were on their bonus to do that, too, and it defelated me when I saw that Halifax result. For us, though, these lads have put themselves down in Sheffield Eagles history as the first side to beat a Super League team since we reformed 17 years ago. It’s great and I am so pleased for them all.”
Sheffield Eagles: Laulu-Togagae; Worrincy, Smeaton, Yere, Turner; Brambani, Aston; Battye, Carlile, Stringer, Knowles, Straugheir, Walker. Substitutes: Taulapapa, Tonks, Davies, Davey.
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats: Jowitt; Lynne, Tupou, Arundel, Johnstone; Miller, Godinet; Anderson, Sio, Scruton, Simon, Washbrook, Annakin. Substitutes: Lauitiiti, Kirmond, Kavanagh, Yates.
Referee: J Cobb (Manchester)