Willie Peters relives Hull KR’s incredible 2023 Challenge Cup semi-final: The Watchalong

Aaron Bower

Ahead of this weekend’s Challenge Cup semi-final between Hull KR and Wigan Warriors, Love Rugby League sat down with Rovers boss Willie Peters to re-live last year’s incredible tie between the sides.

That day, the Robins won 11-10 in extra-time thanks to Brad Schneider’s drop goal. It will surely go down as one of the most memorable semi-finals – and Peters has lifted the lid on his emotions from that day, as well as how key tactical decisions potentially swung the game Rovers’ way..

Despite only coaching in England for six months to that point, this was the third occasion Rovers had met Wigan already. They won the first game of the season, Peters’ first as a head coach, before just being edged out in the second.

“We had some exciting games with them earlier in the season, and last year, certainly to the point of the semi-final was about beating those bigger teams to instil that belief,” Peters explains. “The first game was a big step in that regard. They edged us in the second game but we knew we could compete with them. We believed in ourselves and believed we could win the game.”

But the one difference in the teams that day? The arrival of Schneider who, the week previous, had kicked an extra-time drop goal at Headingley to beat Leeds Rhinos. Who knew what was about to follow a week later.

Peters recalls: “He got off the plane and pretty much wanted to play. We needed a half badly at the time and for me, he came in at the perfect time and he owned it. You saw that in his performances; he wasn’t shy. He took the game by the scruff of the neck, he kicks the winning field goal the week before and does what he does after that. You couldn’t write it.”

Conditions, Peters recalls, made for an “attritional” day, but Rovers did go ahead when Louis Senior’s try made it 4-0. “You’ve got to start well against teams like Wigan and that’s what we did that day,” Peters says. “To be able to score the first try in a big game was important, but especially with the conditions being difficult. It was vital, I thought.”

But by half-time, Rovers were behind by four points behind. Wigan went ahead when Bevan French and Jai Field combined to send the latter through the Robins’ line in a moment that Peters identifies as a blip.

“We could have done some things better,” he says of that try. “Once he (French) digs in the line, Shaun Kenny-Dowall turns out and he needs to keep his inside shoulder to make that tackle.

“Field and French have huge pace and can go on the outside of players which is fair enough, but we told them it was vital we didn’t let them through us in the middle. Thankfully, that was the only time they really did it where it caused us any damage.”

Two goals from Harry Smith made it 8-4 – but Peters certainly didn’t panic.

“Going in 8-4 down against Wigan in a semi-final, it would have given us a lot of confidence,” he admits. “I know we led early on but they’re a champion team, as the rest of the season proved.

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“We’re in the battle, we’re doing a lot of things right with the difference being just four points. I remember thinking we were right in it, and we just told the players to stick at what they were doing.”

The game then swung barely a minute after half-time, when Joe Shorrocks was sent off for a high shot on Mikey Lewis. The momentum decisively tipped Rovers’ way but Peters was determined to remain calm at a crucial moment. He sent his message onto the field.

“The message was to stick to what we were doing, do not start panicking and getting carried away,” he says. “You obviously need to tinker the plan slightly because you’ve got an extra man. But we couldn’t risk going away from everything and start throwing caution to the wind because we had an extra man at the same time.

“There’s going to be an opportunity somewhere on the field so you need to have your eyes up. But in the conditions we had, it’s not as easy to take advantage of that.

“The opposition can grow a leg sometimes too against 12 men, but with so long left, you’d like to think you can go on and win the game. If you start to force it, you’re going to make a bit of a mess of it. Even when it goes 10-4, keep grinding away.”

As Peters says, Wigan extended their lead to six through another Smith penalty and the game was briefly 12-a-side when Shaun Kenny-Dowall was given a yellow card. But, as the game entered the final quarter, Rovers finally made their numerical advantage count.

And it was Kenny-Dowall who produced the decisive play down the short side with a brilliant offload for Matt Parcell, who turned the ball on for Ethan Ryan to make it 10-8. “Skids makes the play there because if he doesn’t get the offload that try doesn’t happen,” Peters says.

But then, the big moment – and the one nobody knew about. Rowan Milnes missed the conversion for Ryan’s try in the first half and, in the blink of an eye, Peters made a huge call that would pay enormous dividends.

“The try is really well worked but the big play comes from Brad because at the time he wasn’t kicking, Rowan was kicking for the first try,” Peters says.

“But I felt with the way Brad played the week before, he’d just come into the country and he didn’t have pressure on him. I made the call in-game right there because I felt at the time, Brad was really in the game. I knew he was a goal-kicker from Australia and I really didn’t want to take it off Rowan, but I just had a hunch that Brad was the right man at that time.”

How right he was. Schneider nervelessly converted from out wide to make it 10-10 to send the game to golden point and Peters reveals how he said very little to the group in the break between the end of normal time and the start of extra-time, instead opting to defer leadership to senior players like Kenny-Dowall.

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“You let the players dictate,” he says. “Unless I’m strong about something you’ll get a message out but with the group I had, I felt the group had a real handle on the game. You certainly need to let your players play and your players feel the rhythm of the game.”

And within three minutes of the start of extra-time, Rovers had an opportunity when the ball was worked to Schneider. “Brad was the go-to man in this situation, I knew that,” Peters says.

However, he admits he still wasn’t fully confident in the half-back from 40 metres out but he nervelessly kicked the winning point, sparking mass celebrations on the pitch, in the terraces – and in the coaching box.

“I had no idea what was going to happen but everything sort of slowed down!” Peters laughs. “It was a totally surreal moment, and to be honest I yelled so loudly my voice went, straight away.

“It’s hard to describe that feeling. Simply unbelievable. That feeling there is the best feeling I’ve ever had as a player or a coach, without a doubt. We’re chasing something again this weekend and then hopefully something even better after that.”

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