HULL KR have reached a Wembley Challenge Cup final for the first time in almost 30 years following a thrilling 26-18 Ladbrokes Challenge Cup victory over Warrington Wolves this afternoon.
Chris Chester’s underdogs, hoping to avoid a fifth successive defeat, produced a heroic semi-final effort in the rain at Headingley to set up the showpiece with Yorkshire rivals and holders Leeds Rhinos on Saturday August 29.
They had not previously appeared in the final since losing to Castleford in 1986 but were well worthy of this victory following some terrific performances from the likes of Italian winger Josh Mantellato and Albert Kelly, who returned from injury to kick sixth-placed Warrington to pieces.
Rovers had to hang on though; they were 20-6 up in the second half but Wolves - who have won the Cup three times since 2009 - hit back with tries from the excellent Richie Myler and Ben Currie to set up a frenetic finish.
However, Shaun Lunt made sure by scrambling over in the 76th minute to set the Rovers fans wild in a crowed of 13,049, man-of-the-match Mantelatto converting for a 14-point personal haul and dejected Warrington nursing a third successive semi-final defeat.
Hull KR, who face a battle to retain their Super League status after finishing 10th and being consigned to The Qualifiers, will point to this brilliant effort as a catalyst for the remainder of the season.
It did not have the quality of last night’s epic between Leeds and St Helens which drew a TV audience of 1.3m on BBC2, a 69 per cent increase on last year’s viewing total that has elated the governing body.
But it had all the same drama and tension in a memorable afternoon for the East Yorkshire club who will now look to emulate their only other Challenge Cup win - that famous victory over Hull in 1980.
They suffered a wretched start when Kris Welham somehow allowed the kick-off to bounce dead. From the drop-out, his side struggled to sort themselves defensively and Ryan Atkins straightened up to surge over after just 73 seconds.
Gareth O’Brien curled in the conversion and for Rovers, playing their first Challenge Cup semi-final in nine years and on the back of that four-game losing sequence, you sensed it could already be a critical passage.
However, they quickly showed their stomach for this fight by ganging up on Daryl Clark to bundle the Man of Steel into touch in the next set - only for Kevin Larroyer and Tony Puletua to waste chances with dropped balls.
Kieran Dixon held up O’Brien up as the Wolves half-back burrowed for the line before both sides endured a series of handling mistakes which, allied to a raft of penalties, meant the game struggled for the fluency and class of last night’s classic.
Rovers prop Jonathan Walker showed unexpected to pace to rescue his side when winger Joel Monaghan looked set to race clear after collecting Lunt’s misguided grubber.
That proved crucial as, soon after, Hull KR scored two tries in three minutes to take control of the half.
The first saw Mantellato finish spectacularly in the corner for his 19th try of the season following some slick handling from Kelly, Maurice Blair and Dixon.
He struck a post with his conversion attempt from wide out but did not miss when fellow winger Ken Sio scored a sensational effort in the next set.
Kelly hoisted a high kick and the former Parramatta Eel - rested last week in readiness for today’s game - came from nowhere to steal in above Gene Ormsby and scorch over from 15m.
When Chris Hill held the effervescent Kelly down in the tackle near the Warrington line, Mantellato made it 12-6 but the Italian international was called upon to make a remarkable tackle on Sam Wilde just as the Wolves second-row seemed destined to score before the break.
After handling errors from John Boudebza and Dixon at the start of the second half, Mantellato was there again to deny Gary Wheeler this time with a crucial tackle in off his wing.
Rovers then extended their lead with a remarkable try from Larroyer, the French second-row back from a one-game ban, who defied the attentions of Atkins, Roy Asotasi, Anthony England and Stefan Ratchford in a four-man attempted tackel to somehow stretch over.
It was the first time in four games the East Yorkshire club had managed to score in the second half so, when Mantellato converted for 18-6, it was understandable why their fans suddenly started looking towards Wembley.
Dixon made a great break as Rovers looked set to score again but Kelly’s kick, for once, was wayward.
However, Warrington made yet another handling error coming out of their own half before infringing once more to allow Mantellato another successful penalty in the 54th minute.
Rovers had had all the possession but Tony Smith’s side finally got some ball four minutes later when Sio spilled and Richie Myler sidestepped over for O’Brien to bring it back to 20-12.
Monaghan almost dived in but was just denied by Dixon nudging him meaning he could not ground properly but they did score when Welham made another error in the 67th minute and Myler supplied Currie for O’Brien to convert.
Nerves then came into play as both sides strived to reach Wembley - more mistakes in the rain and pressure - but it was Chester’s side who held on and Lunt did the trick at the end for a famous win.
“I’m really proud of the boys’ efforts, especially towards the end,” said Chester, whose side had won against the odds at Wigan Warriors in the quarter-finals.
“It was backs to the wall but they found a way to win.
“People have written us off all year but there is still a lot of confidence and belief in this group and we now want to go one further.
“I got a bit emotional in the dressing room, it means a lot to a lot of people.
“We needed everybody to bring their A-game and it was a great team effort from the boys.”
League leaders Leeds, who were impressive 24-14 winners over Saints, are 2-7 favourites with the sponsors to retain their trophy but Chester is confident of pulling off another upset.
“They’re the best team in the competition but we’ve proved in one-off games this year can beat anybody,” he said.
Hull KR chairman Neil Hudgell praised the efforts of his coach, who stepped up from his role of assistant when Australian Craig Sandercock was sacked just over 12 months ago.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet, it will take a while,” said Hudgell, who estimates his club will take between 25,000 and 30,000 fans to Wembley.
“It’s been a long time coming and I’m pleased for the supporters because I’m one of them and I know about the pain.
“The person I’m most pleased for is Chris, though. It’s a goldfish bowl here and it’s very easy for the pressure to crank up.
“It’s a monumental achievement for Chris. It’s been nearly 30 years since we played at Wembley.
“But no one remembers a beaten finalist so we’ve got to up our game and try to make some history for the club.”
Warrington Wolves: Ratchford; Ormsby, Wheeler, Atkins, Monaghan; O’Brien, Myler; Hill, Clark, Sims, Wilde, Currie, Harrison. Substitutes: Dwyer, Asotasi, Philbin, England.
Hull KR: Dixon; Sio, Salter, Welham, Mantellato; Blair, Kelly; Walker, Lunt, Puletua, Larroyer, Horne, McCarthy. Substitutes; Boudebza, Donaldson, Green, Tilse.
Referee: Richard Silverwood (Mirfield)