Hull Kingston Rovers took a significant step towards an instant return to Super League next season by maintaining their unbeaten start to the Qualifiers with victory over Leigh Centurions.
The Robins, widely expected to be the side most capable of achieving promotion from the Championship this season, will probably need to win only three of their remaining five games after two tries from their captain, Shaun Lunt, laid the platform for victory here.
Rovers – relegated in dramatic circumstances in last year’s Million Pound Game against Salford – face two Championship sides, London and Featherstone, in the next fortnight. Should they win these two matches, a place in the sudden-death Million Pound Game will be guaranteed at the very least.
For Leigh, this result will be seen as a missed opportunity to take a big step towards Super League survival. Leading for large periods of the contest, they were eventually undone by Lunt’s match-winning try five minutes from full-time, to leave them with one win from their opening two fixtures. As with KR, five wins will be the total required for a place in Super League next year – but they can, potentially, afford only one more slip-up.
Perhaps understandably, with plenty at stake, points were at a premium in the opening 40 minutes, the home side forging a narrow two-point advantage at half-time. Leigh dominated most of the opening exchanges though, and were eventually rewarded when a marauding run from Harrison Hansen allowed Daniel Mortimer to cross to break the deadlock.
Josh Drinkwater converted to make it 6-0, and it was a penalty from the boot of the Australian that put the Centurions back ahead as half-time approached, after the visitors had levelled courtesy of a well-taken try from Lunt shortly after coming on from the bench.
Lunt’s influence on KR has been telling this year in their quest to bounce back to Super League at the first attempt, and most of the visitors’ big moments emanated from the hooker. Another penalty from Drinkwater extended Leigh’s lead to four after the interval and, for a fair period of the second half, KR were toiling to no avail in their bid for further points.
But from nowhere, some quick dummy-half play from Lunt gave Jamie Ellis the time to launch an inch-perfect kick for the wing Ryan Shaw, who finished superbly in the corner to put the Robins ahead for the first time. That would be the catalyst for a thrilling final quarter.
Ellis added a further penalty to improve KR’s lead to four but Leigh responded as Drinkwater provided a superb close-range pass for Atelea Vea to charge over to put the Centurions back ahead – but KR would not give in. Back-to-back penalties sprung them into an opportune position to strike back and they did so when Lunt scored the match-winning try, spinning around three Leigh defenders for his second.
There were further chances for the hosts, not least in the closing seconds when – despite a number of errors from KR – the Centurions could not make the pressure pay. But Hull KR somehow held on for a victory that could prove vital come the end of the Qualifiers.