RETURNING captain Gareth Ellis scored his first Super League try for Hull FC last night just when they needed it most.
The England second-row had been out of action since injuring his ribs in the Challenge Cup final defeat to Wigan Warriors three weeks ago.
But he resumed against Catalan Dragons and crossed in the 67th minute to settle an ugly elimination play-off and keep alive their hopes of reaching Old Trafford.
Ellis’s only previous effort in his first season since returning home to Yorkshire from the NRL was against Wakefield in a cup tie in May.
But here he latched onto some brilliant creative work from former Wests Tigers colleague Jacob Miller to ease the home side’s tension and put them a step closer to a Grand Final.
It was a rare moment of class in an otherwise scrappy game, the excellent Jamie Shaul delivering the other highlight with a spectacular 80m try that gave Hull a narrow 6-2 interval lead they would never relinquish.
Just as the rain blighted Huddersfield Giants’ qualifying play-off loss to Wigan Warriors 24 hours earlier, this had largely been another difficult spectacle; plenty of efforts and guts but so little guile.
Next up, Peter Gentle’s side will head to Huddersfield themselves on Thursday unless St Helens defeat Hull KR this evening.
Then, instead, they will visit the losing side from this afternoon’s Warrington Wolves v Leeds Rhinos tie next Friday.
Hull fans had little to cheer in the miserable drizzle during a first half which mirrored the weather.
Inevitably it was Shaul, the local lad who has only emerged due to an injury to Australian full-back Shannon McDonnell, who livened up things with a piece of magic.
The exciting youngster has made a habit of that during his all too infrequent appearances this term and he was at it again as he scored a breathtaking try with just 87 seconds remaining of an otherwise dire half of football.
Shaul showed great ability to defuse Leon Pryce’s high kick just in front of his own 20m line and, when the Catalan defender failed to hold him down properly, the 21-year-old needed no second invite.
He quickly spotted space and weaved through the bedraggled visiting defence to surge 80m downfield to maintain his impressive try-a-game ratio.
That is now nine in nine for Shaul and, with Tickle converting, Hull had their noses in front.
Catalan had generally coped better in the conditions, kicking more effectively and forcing early drop-outs, but, in fairness, both sides struggled for anything resembling cohesion.
Thomas Bosc had already missed one penalty when he put his side ahead with a goal in the 31st minute, the raw scrum-half Miller conceding one of those frustratingly needless infringements when he had a second attempt at holding down Elliott Whitehead.
Earlier, they had traded rare breaks, Richard Horne easing into space for Hull and linking with Shaul only for Daniel Holdsworth to spill as the goalline fast approached, before Bosc countered after good work from Ian Henderson.
He was hauled down by Shaul but grateful Hull were let off the hook when Catalan shifted the ball right towards an obvious overlap only for Olivier Elima to deliver an awful pass to the stooping Whitehead.
The closest Hull had gone was when Tickle charged onto Holdsworth’s flat pass but Catalan full-back Brent Webb just clung on to keep him short while Horne was just inches away from touching down when Holdsworth produced an impromptu kick early in the tackle count. Tickle had missed a straightforward penalty to level in the 35th minute but Shaul’s class gave Gentle’s side that slim cushion.
Catalan – who historically flatter to deceive in the play-offs – did most of the pressing early in the second period but were handled easily enough so it was no surprise Bosc accepted another two points when a penalty chance was offered in the 55th minute.
However, that was eradicated soon after by Tickle’s boot when Catalan’s Eloi Pelissier crudely stood on Aaron Heremaia’s ankle after the Hull hooker had tackled Pryce.
Shaul was sharp to deny Webb after a bit of loose play before Miller came up with the sort of brilliant creativity Hull fans have been crying out for, taking on the line and stepping through a raft of would-be tacklers closes to the posts for Ellis to cross.
Tickle did the rest and Catalan – who have not won at the KC Stadium since 2008 – were finished.
It was hardly the send-off Catalan’s Steve Menzies would have hoped for as the brilliant 39-year-old brought an end to one of rugby league’s most astonishing careers but, then again, the Australian legend has never been one for personal fanfare.
There was the odd glimpse of his old magic last night, principally when his deft handling gave his former Bradford Bulls colleague Whitehead a rare running chance, but it was Ellis who stole the glory.
Hull FC: Shaul; Crookes, Horne, Yeaman, Briscoe; Holdsworth, Miller; Watts, Houghton, Johnson, Ellis, Tickle, Westerman. Substitutes: Whiting, Heremaia, Bowden, Green.
Catalan Dragons: Webb; Blanch, Menzies, Duport, Vaccari; Pryce, Bosc; Bousquet, Henderson, Casty, Taia, Whitehead, Mounis. Substitutes: Pelissier, Elima, Fakir, Paea.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).