No one will blame the Championship high-fliers for losing against London Broncos in their much-anticipated Tetley’s Challenge Cup quarter-final last night.
They were, after all, up against Super League opposition and a side boasting the best player on the pitch in the truly classy Jamie Soward, a State of Origin scrum-half recently flown over from Australia to try to get London away from bottom spot.
However, what will infuriate Mark Aston and his side most is that they saved one of their least impressive performances of the season for when it mattered most.
Sheffield had been on a 15-match winning run, last losing at Whitehaven on April Fool’s Day, and there was every suggestion here early on that they could extend that.
London had plenty of ball but were mightily sloppy and looked like a side low on confidence.
Part-timers Sheffield, meanwhile, seemed well-organised and resolute enough in defence, trailing just 10-4 until Michael Robertson’s fortuitous try in the 47th minute.
However, they continually coughed up cheap possession to encourage their opponents and Soward duly took control
There had been much talk of recreating memories of 1998 when Sheffield famously went on to win the Challenge Cup in the greatest of upsets against Wigan but, ultimately, it is London who are now in tomorrow’s semi-final draw for the first time since 1999 when they went on to lose against Leeds Rhinos at Wembley.
Sheffield, instead, must make sure they quickly eradicate their handling issues as they face Leigh in the Northern Rail Cup final in only a week.
London had the majority of play in the first half and should really have finished the tie off there and then.
However, a combination of steely Sheffield defence and sloppy handling, betraying a side that sits bottom of Super League, ensured the hosts remained in touching distance.
London were also hugely thankful to the hosts’ Joe Hirst for their two first-half tries.
The loose forward made a couple of handling errors coming out of his own 20m and, unfortunately, was made to pay on both occasions.
From the first mistake, Sheffield should still have defended the set, London stand-off Michael Witt swatting aside opposite number Pat Walker in the 21st minute courtesy of a basic one-on-one miss.
However, there was little anyone could have done about the second as Soward, the mercurial New South Wales scrum-half, crabbed his way across field from a 20m scrum, toying with the Sheffield defence before arcing over in the corner.
It was a classy affair though the hosts had scored their own in between.
London’s Tommy Lee, the ex-Hull FC and Wakefield hooker, threw a blatant forward pass from dummy half in his own 20m to gift Sheffield some much-needed possession and they capitalised.
Walker arrowed a pass to Menzie Yere who showed his trademark strength to hold Rhodri Lloyd at bay, suck in winger Jamie O’Callaghan and then flick out a lovely pass for winger Scott Turner to dive over.
It was just what they needed to settle themselves into the game but Hirst’s next mistake put them under immediate pressure and it was no surprise when he was hauled off as Witt lined up his second conversion attempt.
Walker denied another try as he dragged down a rampaging Scott Wheeldon before Sheffield’s defence scrambled once more to hold up Luke Dorn on one of the Australian full-back’s typically weaving runs towards the line.
Good handling almost saw Turner over for a double at the start of second half but O’Callaghan just managed to force the winger into touch. Robertson extended London’s lead with that scrappy try.
Armstrong seemed to have dealt with Witt’s lofted kick on his own goalline but then got himself in a mess for Robertson, an NRL Grand Final winner with Manly, to touch down.
Witt added the extras but Soward had to be called upon defensively to stop Brambani arrowing his way through a bedraggled London defensive line.
However, that was a rare chance for the home side and London quickly calmed any lingering nerves when Shane Rodney bulldozed his way through a weak tackle to grab their fourth try on the hour mark.
Soward converted and then, showing his vast experience, added a drop-goal soon after.
When another short kick-off backfired for Sheffield, Rhodri Lloyd crashed over for another try, Witt improving.
But then, at the third attempt, Sheffield finally got a reward from their restart tactic allowing Yere to hit a great angle to stretch over for his 27th try of the season.
Walker curled over the conversion and the Eagles support came alive once more.
However, there was no reprieve. Hopefully that will come next Saturday in Halifax when they tackle their first Northern Rail Cup final.
Sheffield Eagles: Laulu-Togagae; Turner, Yere, Armstrong, Taulapapa; Walker; Brambani; Battye, Henderson, Stringer, Garside, Straugheir, Hirst. Substitutes: Davey, Roche, Green, Szostak.
London Broncos: Dorn; O’Callaghan, Lloyd, Sarginson, Robertson; Witt, Soward; Kaufusi, Lee, Clubb, McMeeken, Rodney, Krasniqi. Substitutes: Fisher, Bryant, Wheeldon, Melling.
Referee: James Child (Dewsbury)