The resurgent Crusaders sprang a major surprise as they produced an impressive performance to overcome the previously unbeaten Hull FC 18-16 in front of almost 7000 spectators in wintry Wrexham.
Overnight snowfall left the fixture in serious doubt but the game was given the green light thanks to efforts of a team of volunteers who helped clear the snow from the pitch in the morning. The Welsh supporters must be wondering what summer rugby is after the both of the Crusaders home fixtures so far have been played in conditions more akin to the North Pole than North Wales.
Hull, who were without the injured Sean Long, started brightly but the first scoring opportunity went the way of the home side when prop Ryan O’Hara broke the line but Michael Witt’s chip was easily taken in goal.
Crusaders seized the next opening that came their way through Nick Youngquest on 11 minutes. The close season recruit from Gateshead caught a crossfield kick from Tommy Lee, who returned from injury against his former club, and stretched out to ground the ball with Witt adding the extras to put the home side 6-0 in front.
The lead was to prove short-lived as referee Ian Smith harshly penalised Kear for an incorrect play the ball immediately after the restart. The visitors took advantage as Mark O’Meley’s short ball created an opening for Lee Radford who touched down next to the posts, giving Craig Fitzgibbon and easy conversion to level the scoreline.
Hull edged into the lead after 17 minutes when Willie Manu and Tom Briscoe combined to take advantage of some slack Crusaders defence with the young Englishman scoring in the corner and Fitzgibbon’s conversion put Richard Agar’s side 16-12 up.
A solo effort from Michael Witt, who twisted and turned his way through the Hull defence, on 28 minutes restored parity and the home side began to enjoy the greater possession as the interval approached.
Witt went close once more on 35 minutes but his offload was spilled forwards resulting in a melee between the players as tempers flared. Both sets of players upped the ante in defence with some powerful shots before Witt, who must surely be considered as one of the signings of the season, attempted a long range drop goal on the stroke of half time but his effort drifted wide of the posts.
Hull started the second half strongly with some inventive play from Richard Horne troubling the home side and hooker Shaun Berrigan was held up just short of the line as the Crusaders clung on. The visitors were now firmly in control and Epalahame Lauaki crossed the whitewash on 55 minutes but the big Tongan was adjudged to have been held up.
Lauaki, who enjoyed a mixed afternoon, was in trouble just 2 minutes later as he was placed on report for leading with the elbow and the second rower is likely to face a disciplinary committee hearing.
The Crusaders were unable to take advantage of their rare foray into opposition territory and Hull regained the lead on the hour mark as Kirk Yeaman touched down an intelligent kick from Jordan Tansey. Crucially, Fitzgibbon’s conversion attempt rebounded off the woodwork to leave the Black and Whites with a four point advantage.
Hull continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession but they were unable to extend their lead, often lacking invention on the last tackle and the home side took advantage of their wastefulness on 67 minutes. Witt’s delicate chip to the corner floated over the head of Briscoe and was collected by Youngquest who touched down for his second try of the match. Witt’s touchline conversion sailed between the posts to put the Welsh club 18-16 in front.
Hull almost hit back on 70 minutes when Tansey kicked to the right corner and Craig Hall looked certain to score but was denied by a fantastic try saving tackle from his former teammate Gareth Raynor.
The visitors pushed hard in search of a way back into the game but they were unable to find a way past a well drilled Crusaders outfit. Without the enigmatic Sean Long the visitors looked bereft of creativity and his availability will be key to Hull’s chances of success.
With the final hooter approaching Crusaders side adopted a safety first approach and it was to serve them well as they held on for a memorable victory over a side many consider to be amongst the strongest in Super League. The enthusiastic reaction of the local supporters suggests that many will return after an entertaining encounter and it is very possible that the relocation to Wrexham may finally help establish the game in the principality.