THE promotion after-party almost turned out just as enjoyable as the main event for brilliant Hull KR last night.
Tim Sheens’s Championship side secured promotion back to Super League with a famous win over Widnes Vikings at Craven Park on Sunday and were, then, supposed to be all hung-over, jaded and not too interested for the visit of Catalans Dragons.
However, that sort of thing doesn’t happen on the Australian’s watch.
Instead, despite fielding a vastly under-strength side, including only six players who featured last weekend, spirited Rovers produced a remarkable performance – and came within inches of stunning the illustrious French team.
They actually led 19-8 before their former centre Iain Thornley – booed every time he touched the ball after leaving controversially following last year’s relegation – crossed in the 70th minute to spark a Catalans comeback.
Luke Walsh converted and did so again to nudge his side in front when Brayden Wiliame scored again five minutes later.
However, Rovers, inspired by fans favourite Ben Cockayne, retrieved the ball from a short restart and then dramatically won a penalty for offside 40m out.
Chris Atkin, who had kicked superbly all evening, attempted the 79th-minute shot but saw it shave a post to let relieved relegation-threatened Catalans off the hook.
The French side were still left sweating as Atkin saw a drop-goal attempt fall just wide in the final seconds.
Cockayne, the 34-year-old veteran who was one of 11 changes and came in to captain the side in his final home appearance before joining York City Knights, had initially put his side on course for a sixth straight Qualifiers win.
He scored a lovely try, sprinting onto Atkin’s clever reverse kick that bounced up perfectly for him next to the posts in the 53rd minute.
That put Rovers ahead for the first time, Zach Dockar-Clay’s conversion making it 12-8.
Just five minutes later, following a classy break from Dockar-Clay, Cockayne launched a kick that Thornley failed to take.
In the next set, George Lawler barged through some woeful marker defence to claim their third try and leave Catalans visibly stunned, Dockar-Clay’s kick leaving them 18-8 behind.
Even when Rovers made a rare mistake, dropping possession in the restart set, the French visitors gaffed again, Wiliame poking his head through the defensive line only to throw the ball past Thornley and into touch.
Worse was to come when, for once, Catalans had Rovers really stretched but this time - with the line open – ex-Kiwi centre Krisnan Inu inexplicably dropped Paul Aiton’s pass. It came back for an earlier Rovers fumble – only for Wiliame to unbelievably blunder again.
Instead, Chris Clarkson picked up the loose ball and charged forward clearing the home side’s line and setting up position for Atkin to slot a 65th-minute drop goal.
However, the Perpignan outfit rescued themselves at the death but how they had been made to work for it.
Catalans went ahead via a well-rehearsed move in the ninth minute, Walsh lofting a chip towards the posts that his half-back partner Richie Myler collected on the full to dive over.
Walsh converted but when he hit an upright with a penalty attempt soon after it was the first sign that Steve McNamara’s side might not have everything their own way.
Certainly, the manner in which Oakes surged back, beating defender after defender when collecting the rebound, illustrated Rovers were not ready to be swept aside.
They forced some pressure of their own and tried a number of ploys to surprise Catalans, including Atkin sliding in a kick early in the tackle count that caused some panic in the French ranks.
Vincent Duport thought he had got over but scrambling pressure from Jordan Abdull, Cockayne and Oakes made sure he failed to ground in the corner, replays showing he was just short of the line.
That meant Rovers trailed just 8-0 at the break. Horne came close to getting them off the mark when he dived onto Matty Marsh’s grubber just too late.
Catalans continued to struggle for fluency, though, which only served to further encourage the hosts who responded in the 48th minute. The French side failed to make a suitable challenge for Marsh’s high kick and the ball found its way to Atkin who flicked a reverse pass towards Oakes.
The ball clearly went forward but play continued regardless and the 18-year-old finished smartly from 20m out.
Dockar-Clay converted but when Catalans fumbled yet again they wasted a perfect opportunity to press again, Marsh trying a speculative kick too many from the scrum on halfway.
Still, Romain Navarette spilled trying a futile offload leaving McNamara bewildered – and Cockayne lit up the stage.
Hull KR: Cockayne, Moss, Salter, Abdull, Oakes, Marsh, Atkin, Kavanagh, Lawler, Mulhern, Horne, Greenwood, Clarkson. Substitutes: Cator, Moran, Clark, Dockar-Clay.
Catalans Dragons: Tierney, Duport, Inu, Wiliame, Thornley, Walsh, Myler, Moa, Aiton, Bousquet, Anderson, Horo, Garcia. Substitutes: Baitieri, Albert, Margalet, Navarrete.
Referee: R Hicks (RFL).