Hull KR ended their nine-year wait to reach the semi-finals of the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup with a thrilling 32-26 win over Catalans Dragons last night.
Winger Josh Mantellato and play-maker Albert Kelly were the stars of the Robins’ show as they blitzed the Dragons to lead 26-4 at the break.
And despite a spirited fightback from the French visitors, Rovers were not to be denied a last-four spot for the first time since 2006.
Hull KR, who welcomed back Shaun Lunt and Dane Tilse from injury, went into the game in good form following back-to-back wins over Widnes and Warrington in Super League.
Surprisingly, for a club of Hull KR’s stature, they have only lifted the Challenge Cup once in their history.
That came 35 years ago, beating cross-city rivals Hull FC 10-5 in front of 95,000 fans at Wembley.
The last time they reached the semi-finals was back in 2006, when they were thrashed 50-0 by St Helens.
But they corrected that statistic in pulsating fashion last night.
Tony Puletua was first to show for the Robins with two fierce drives down the middle.
And when Kelly’s punt to the corner caused panic in the Dragons defence, there was relief for the visitors as the ball rolled out of play.
Hull KR had started at a frantic pace, and deservedly took the lead when full-back Kieran Dixon broke the defensive line.
That created space on the right flank for Ken Sio to sprint clear for a try, converted by the impressive Mantellato.
Kelly was in eye-catching form, scampering around the pitch, and at the heart of Hull KR’s best moves.
When the Robins forced Catalans to cough up possession, with some tigerish tackling, Puletua – who will miss next Tuesday’s Super League game against his parent club Salford – bulldozed through, before popping the ball up for Dixon to crash over.
The Dragons were stunned, and when winger Mantellato plucked the ball from a booming Maurice Blair kick, he was alert enough to feed Kelly for a third Hull KR try.
Mantellato converted both tries to put Robins 18-0 up inside the first quarter. The Rovers winger was proving to be a stand-out performer, popping up in defence to block Krisnan Inu as Dragons threatened a score.
And he was instrumental in the hosts’ fourth try of the evening. Substitute Shaun Lunt fed Mantellato, who then looked inside for the supporting Graeme Horne to skip over.
Mantellato’s fourth successive conversion gave Rovers a 24-0 lead and had fans dreaming of their first semi-final since they returned to Super League. It had been the perfect opening half for Hull KR, but their defence was breached in the 36th minute. Louis Anderson’s drive down the centre caused panic, and when the ball came out wide, Inu got his fingertips to it for a lifeline try.
Scott Dureau was unable to add the conversion from out wide, and it was left to Mantellato have the final say of the half, firing over a long-range penalty to hand them a 26-4 lead at the interval.
The French side needed to score first if they were to get back in the game, and it needed the video referee to rule out a ‘try’ after Inu was judged to have knocked on in the build-up.
Liam Salter was inches short of the line from another impressive Kelly kick, but it was the Dragons who looked more threatening at the start of the second half as Zeb Taia crashed over from a penalty.
Dureau added the conversion to make it 26-10 after 54 minutes, and they cut the deficit further minutes later.
Tony Gigot showed neat footwork to break the hosts’ defensive line, before a well-weighted kick through saw Inu use his pace to touch down.
Dureau failed with his converson attempt, but the nerves had set in with the Craven Park faithful getting increasingly agitated with referee Phil Bentham’s decisions.
But with 15 minutes remaining, the Robins finally came up with a try to calm the locals.
Hull KR marched upfield, and with the French side retreating, the ball was played to the right flank where Sio did well to collect the ball and slide over.
Mantellato missed his first conversion of the evening, but did slot over a penalty moments after Dureau had added the conversion to Ian Henderson’s try.
A 78th-minute try from Elliott Whitehead, plus Dureau’s conversion, cut Rovers’ lead to 32-26 but to the relief of the 6,073 crowd that was the end of the scoring as they secured their spot in Sunday’s semi-final draw.
Hull K R: Dixon, Sio, Salter, Welham, Mantellato, Blair, Kelly, Walker, Boudebza, Puletua, Larroyer, Horne, McCarthy. Substitutes: Lunt, Donaldson, Greenwood, Tilse.
Catalans Dragons: Escare, Inu, Gigot, Pomeroy, Yaha, Robin, Dureau, Bousquet, Henderson, Casty, Taia, Whitehead, Baitieri.Substitutes: Anderson, Mounis, Pelissier, Garcia.
Referee: P Bentham (RFL).