DEPLETED Huddersfield Giants gave one of the most heartening performances in recent Super League history to almost pull off a major shock last night only to lose at the death.
Missing eight first-teamers to injury, and fielding a raft of youngsters including 18-year-old part-timer Sam Wood, Jamie Ellis’ 70th-minute drop goal looked like putting them on course for one of their most famous victories against Wigan Warriors.
However, after earlier seeing Jake Connor effort ruled out by video referee Ben Thaler, Paul Anderson’s side were left reeling after Josh Charnley, the England winger, went over just four minutes from time to save the visitors.
Huddersfield’s performance was awash with grit, character and spirit, a fitting tribute to Luke Robinson, their hooker who this week announced his immediate retirement due to a hip injury aged just 31, and was renowned for all those characteristics.
He gave a fine on-field speech at half-time to say ‘Thank You’ to both clubs, the former England international having served Wigan with real distinction, too.
It was also announced that the RFL has awarded Robinson a 12-month testimonial for his services to the game and it seemed injury-ravaged Huddersfield would give him a win here too.
Ellis, the former Castleford scrum-half who came of age in captain Danny Brough’s absence, was brilliant steering the side around and almost stepped through for a try of his own before Charnley’s last act.
Right from the opening exchanges it was clear Huddersfield would show no fear here.
Well-organised and committed in defence, full of industry and effort on attack, Ellis launching his raking kicks downfield... you would never have guessed there had been so much disruption in their camp.
Tyro forwards Josh Johnson, Nathan Mason, Oli Roberts and Kruise Leeming all came in and grabbed their chances while Wood, the teenager from Dewsbury Celtic amateurs, delivered a really confident debut, annoying the experienced Anthony Gelling at every opportunity.
Jamie Foster, the former St Helens winger playing his first game of rugby league since 2014, was tidy outside him, too, scoring a debut try as he started a one-month trial with the West Yorkshire club in the middle of their injury crisis that sees them without Robinson, Brough, Scott Grix, Eorl Crabtree, Joe Wardle and more.
It was bizarre, however, that the visitors largely opted against attacking that rookie left-side partnership.
Everyone presumed Shaun Wane would tell his troops to pepper Wood and Foster but instead they continually targeted Huddersfield’s right edge – expertly marshalled by England duo Leroy Cudjoe and Jermaine McGillvary.
Initially, it was Huddersfield’s more experienced players unusually coming up with the errors, the former Melbourne Storm hooker Ryan Hinchcliffe forcing an ugly pass on Wigan’s line and fellow NRL star Sam Rapira gifting a soft penalty for a pointless second grab in the tackle on John Bateman.
However, they soon got into the rhythm themselves and, after 24 minutes of stalemate it was Huddersfield who took a deserved lead, Ellis’ fine long pass marooning the Wigan wide defenders and seeing McGillvary over at the corner.
Ellis converted from the touchline, too, and the nearest Wigan got to scoring in the first half was when Gelling tried twisting over in the 33rd minute only to fumble under pressure from the scrambling full-back Aaron Murphy. Wigan did finally find enough cohesion to score early in the second period when Liam Farrell mopped up after Dan Sarginson palmed down Matty Smith’s kick, Smith converting.
Then came that contentious video referee call as Connor looked to have got his hand to the ball following a kick before the Wigan defender hacked at it.
Countless replays later, Thaler disallowed the effort and, typically, just moments after, Wigan took the lead through Dom Manfredi’s try, converted by Smith.
However, it did not sidetrack Huddersfield who held their nerve to respond in style via Foster.
A slick handling move saw Connor eventually fired out a long pass for the former Saints player to finish well in the 64th minute
Ellis could not convert but he did add a penalty three minutes later to level and then dropped the goal which seemed set to give his side a famous victory.
When the 26 year-old stepped through himself soon after Wigan were forced to desperately stop him and then Connor, too.
It paid off as Gelling then broke to set up position for Charnley’s definitive effort for Smith to improve.
Heartbreaking for Giants who have now lost two from two.
Anderson said: “It’s a feeling of disappointment. Our commitment and effort was outstanding.
“What you saw is the future of the club. The youngsters stood up real well and we know now that we have blokes out there no matter how old they are that can do a job for us.
“But we should have won that game. When we went 12-6 down, we could easily have thrown the towel in but that’s not us. We got back in it but we know we could have won it, too.
“It was real pleasing that Jamie Ellis got the game by the scruff of the neck. He was the best half-back on the pitch.
“I thought all the senior blokes led by example and on the back of that the young ones responded.”
Huddersfield Giants: Murphy; McGillvary, Cudjoe, Wood, Foster; Connor, Ellis; Rapira, Hinchcliffe, Johnson, Ta’ai, Lawrence, Patrick. Substitutes: Smith, Leeming, Mason, Roberts.
Wigan Warriors: Tierney; Manfredi, Sarginson, Gelling, Charnley; Powell, Smith; Flower, McIlorum, O’Loughlin, Farrell, Isa, Bateman. Substitutes: Clubb, Tautai, Sutton, Burke.
Referee: Phil Bentham (Warrington).